What Are You Reading?

Welcome once again to What Are You Reading? where we ask, "If you were stuck on an island with the smoke monster, what would you bring to read?" Yes, that was my lame attempt to make today's edition topical. Sorry. Let's just write that off as me being really excited to see the end of Lost.

This week our special guest is comics retailer Randy Lander, who you can find selling comics at Rogues Gallery Comics & Games in Round Rock, Texas or blogging over at Inside Joke Theatre. To see what Randy and the rest of our merry castaways have been reading, click the link below ...


Brigid Alverson

Just by chance, I'm reading two books about high-schoolers that mix real life and fantasy elements. Foiled, written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Mike Cavallaro, is the slicker of the two; it is published by First Second and is in full color, with a very deluxe feel. Yet I think the other book, Gene Luen Yang's Animal Crackers, has the better story.

Foiled is clever and elegantly carried out—it's the story of a girl who is a misfit in school but very into fencing. When she winds up with a super-cute new guy as her lab partner, she thinks of their budding relationship in terms of fencing moves. Aliera, the lead character, is the sort of independent, self-confident girl that grownups like me like to read about; she's a good role model, a comfortingly mature teenager. The problem is that the story shifts halfway through from a fairly realistic high-school drama to a fantasy tale: Aliera goes on her first date with Avery, the cute guy, and as she is standing in Grand Central Station, she puts on her fencing mask and suddenly sees a host of fantastic creatures. Unfortunately, Yolen has given the reader no hint up till then of what will happen. It's simply too abrupt a break, and in a deeper way, it doesn't make emotional sense. Aliera is a great kid, but a hero? I didn't see enough to convince me of that.

Animal Crackers also mixes an imaginative fantasy world with high school life, but the fantasy elements come in early and are better integrated. The book consists of three of Yang's early works, all loosely connected by overlapping characters and situations, plus a bonus story at the end explaining how these comics came to be in the first place.

I like it that Yang's characters aren't the stereotyped good kids of young-adult literature; in the first story, a bully and a nerd team up to fight animal crackers that have come to life. Yang moves beyond the standard archetypes and makes his teens quirky enough to be interesting. He also invents fantasy creatures who send spaceships up people's noses in order to tap into the unused portions of their brains. The other long story in the book is about a girl who meets a mysterious stranger in her dreams, but the spaceship-up-the-nose motif continues as well. Yang touches on a lot of common themes—hatred, forgiveness, elitism—but he doesn't treat any of them simplistically. His fantasy characters are an integral part of each story from the beginning. While Foiled threw me for a loop halfway through the book, with Animal Crackers I knew what I was dealing with from the beginning—a witty blend of fantasy and high school life.

Michael May

Ex Occultus: Badge of Langavat is an occult-investigator comic by Robert James Russell, Jesse Young, and Sandra Lanz. It’s cool that they’ve done a lot of research into the creatures and legends that appear in the book, but the thing about occult-investigator stories is that it’s not the creatures and legends that make them good. It’s the investigators. I’ve seen plenty of werewolf stories, what I haven’t seen is Your Characters fighting werewolves. And unfortunately, I didn’t get to know the hunters in Ex Occultus enough to learn if I like them or not. The two Scot highlanders trying to rescue a bunch of kids from a castle full of werewolves certainly know what they’re doing and are really tough in a fight, but I got little sense that they were real people with personalities. It’s a cool concept; it just needs a lot of work in the execution.

I picked up the first collection of Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! to read for bedtime stories, but decided that first we’d need to read Jeff Smith’s Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil. The language was a bit more than I was ready for (not awful, but “ass” – for instance – isn’t a word that gets used a lot in our house), but it was a lot of fun introducing these characters to my son. He was totally fooled about Sivana’s being a good guy and the revelation that Mr. Mind was a tiny worm was shocking to him. There’s a lot to love about the story: talking tigers, crocodiles, and bugs, weird monsters, giant robots; a mysterious wizard. I wasn’t sure how I was going to like Mary Marvel as an elementary student (I’m so used to her as a pre-teen), but Smith had great instincts about that too and Mary’s completely adorable. David and I were both sorry to reach the end of the book, but we’re happy to have Mike Kunkel’s version to follow it up with.

Chris Mautner

Like Brigid I also read Foiled. If anything, however, I liked it even less than she did. Which is a shame and a bit surprising, considering the talent involved.

Artist Mike Cavallaro tries hard to maintain reader interest -- mixing up layouts and perspectives -- and he has a nice, cartoony style. But it can't overcome Yolen's awkward, leaden prose. Her heroine speaks like no teenager -- or really person -- I know, or would want to know for that matter. She seems less like a person than an amalgamation of character traits. The late third act intrusion of fantasy into the material doesn't do much to jazz up the material either. If anything, it upsets the applecart even more -- all that only to have the revelation be yet another "you are the chosen one who must save the magical world of ZiderZee crap?"

The whole time I read this book I kept thinking to myself, "You know what I'd really like to read? A manga about a young girl who knows nothing about fencing, but joins her school club on a whim, finds out she really likes the sport, and through pluck and determination becomes one of the best in her school and goes on to compete the big national finals." I'd much rather have that slate of cliches than what's presented here.

Tom Bondurant

This week I finally caught up with a couple of DC's "First Wave" titles, namely Doc Savage #s 1-2 and First Wave #2. Having read the Batman/Doc Savage Special and First Wave #1, I found the idea behind "First Wave" appealing, but in practice it's hit or miss. For one thing, I am not that familiar with Doc Savage or the Avenger beyond just knowing that they exist -- so to me, these books cry out for the basic expository grounding an omniscient narrator (for example) might have provided. The Doc Savage issues (written by Paul Malmont, pencilled by Howard Porter, inked by Art Thibert) tell a decent story about an old enemy of Doc's using lightning to attack him and his infrastructure, but it might have been more meaningful had I known how all these things fit together. I'm also finding Porter's storytelling to be more challenging than it was on JLA, and I say that as someone who genuinely liked his JLA work. Art is not a problem on First Wave, because Rags Morales is doing some really great work. However, issue #2 also suffers from who-is-that?-itis. I will probably stick with First Wave, but I don't feel like I missed much with Doc Savage.

Last week's War of the Supermen #2 featured some really ugly art (especially the faces) from Eduardo Pansica and Wayne Faucher, so I was not especially looking forward to this week's issue #3. And indeed, it's not perfect, because Zod's army comes across as this unstoppable force which essentially brings Earth to its knees. It maytherefore be a stretch to show them beaten back in just 22 pages, as must happen next week. Even so, I thought this issue (written by Sterling Gates and James Robinson, pencilled by CAFU, and inked by Bit) was an excellent piece of setup, specifically for the last page. This whole miniseries is essentially a larger-scale version of Superman II, and issue #3 ends on its version of "would you like to step outside?"

Finally, I'm pretty pleased with Phil Jimenez and John Wells' updating of the old Michael Fleisher Encyclopedia Of Comic Book Heroes Vol. 2, here called The Essential Wonder Woman Encyclopedia. It's the same format (and approach) as Bob Greenberger's Essential Batman Encyclopedia from 2008, but it may be more comprehensive and -- with no disrespect at all to Mr. Greenberger -- more readable. Now, that might be because I don't know as much about obscure WW characters, and (ironically) I don't know as much about the Earth-1 Wonder Woman. I'm tempted to say there's just not as much Wonder Woman material as there is for Batman (or for Superman, whose Essential Encyclopedia comes out in August). Still, it's the kind of book I can open to any random page and find something interesting. The one drawback, which was true as well for the Batman volume, is that it only cites first appearances, and not specific issues beyond that. This surely cut down on its length, but it makes it less than ideal as a reference work. Still, I'd rather leaf through this thick book than spend all my time looking up comics online....

Tim O'Shea

I bought Origins of Marvel Comics for some of the exquisite art (such as Lee Weeks' Hulk and Marcos Martin's Daredevil), but also to amuse myself with how Fred Van Lente summarized characters in the span of one page (and Fred does a great job). Believe it or not, this comic marks the first time I have ever gotten Wolverine's full origin. I skipped all those infernal and myriad "origin" tales that Marvel has done over the years with Wolverine, because they never seemed to interest me. So now, more than 10 years after everyone else, I know that Logan is really a guy called James Howlett. My life is complete. Thank you, Marvel. Oh, but back to the Hulk origin--does anyone get the impression that Bruce Banner has been looking for a way to cure himself of being the Hulk (as his origin page says). The last time I remember that being a focus was when the Hulk was a TV show with Bill Bixby.

While I'm partial to issues of the kids Batman: The Brave and the Bold written by Landry Walker, this month's issue by Sholly Fisch is a blast. Fisch gives us a week of Batman's team-ups which includes appearances by Metamorpho; the entire Green Lantern Corp; Merry, Girl of 1,000 Gimmicks; Jonah Hex; Bat Lash; Hawkman; The Demon; The Inferior Five; The Creeper--plus (and I don't know if this character has shown up in this comic series before) a cameo by Chief Miles O'Hara (a character from the 1960s TV show).

Kurt Busiek back in the Marvel universe is a nice treat--his take on J. Jonah Jameson as politician in the Age of Heroes #1 (of 4) is as good as Mark Waid's (that's a compliment). He even gets to write the Avengers for a second. This issue also has Paul Cornell & Leonard Kirk on a Captain Britain & MI:13 two-pager (anyone else think there might be a miniseries with this team down the road? I hope so). And while it's only a one-pager, anytime Dan Slott and Ty Templeton team up on anything I am happy.

Girl Comics #2 is a great read for the Colleen Coover art by itself. But you also get a comedic crank call by the Thing to Doctor Doom in a two-pager by Stephanie Buscema in which she's a great writer as well as an artist. I almost bristled at the $4.99 price tag, but I reminded myself that the Trina Robbins text pieces alone make the buy worth $5. If I haven't convinced you its worth reading, I'll just give you one more good reason: Jill Thompson drawing the Inhumans--and it's funny.

Sorry to see that Phil Hester's Anchor came to an end with issue 8 this month. But by Hester's own admission he had originally conceived the project as a six-issue miniseries or standalone graphic novel, so it actually in a sense went beyond his initial expectations. Kudos to BOOM for giving the story a try and providing Hester a chance to wrap up the tale in the way he wanted.

Graeme McMillan

I'm having one of those weeks where I feel very lucky to be on the DC comp list, having received and now working through the collected edition of Wednesday Comics, as well as the reissued Stuck Rubber Baby and an advance copy of Dark Rain, the new New-Orleans-Heist-During-Katrina graphic novel from Vertigo. The hardcover Wednesday Comics is amazing, and almost overwhelming in terms of size (The pages are actually slightly smaller than the original newspaper, but the hardcover format somehow makes up for that. Don't ask me to explain it), but the glossy paper really makes the artwork look amazing and the collected format makes stories that seemed underwhelming in the original run read very differently this time around: the formalist play of Gaiman/Allred's Metamorpho is more obvious, and Ben Caldwell's Wonder Woman is much more legible, which'll hopefully help people realize how good it really was all along. I know it's almost $50, but it's a really, really great book. I'm only partway into both Stuck Rubber Baby and Dark Rain, but enjoying both very much - which I expected from Howard Cruise's memoir, but Mat Johnston and Simon Gane have happily surprised me with Dark Rain, which is fast-moving, funny and not even vaguely as exploitative as I'd feared.

Randy Lander

Enter The Heroic AgeThis is a great teaser for Marvel's new books, a bunch of short stories that serve as prologue for the new Thunderbolts, Hawkeye & Mockingbird, Atlas, Black Widow and Avengers Academy. In particular, my second favorite story here was Jeff Parker's take on the Luke Cage-led Thunderbolts, which looks like a lot of fun, taking into account the character's jailhouse roots as well as his modern-day Avenger mainstay status. Since Hawkeye & Mockingbird are my two favorite characters at Marvel, and I loved what Jim McCann and David Lopez did with them in New Avengers Reunion, my favorite story here was their teaser intro for their new ongoing Hawkeye & Mockingbird book, picking up where New Avengers Reunion left off. I can't believe I'm actually getting this series, I've been waiting for something like it since about 1985, I think.

The Killer Modus Vivendi by Matz & Luc JacamonIf you haven't read the gorgeous European comic The Killer, published by Archaia Studios, do yourself a favor and pick up the two hardcovers. It's one of the best crime comics I've ever read, a story of a hitman told from the point of view of the hitman, and while it's got plenty of violence and anti-social behavior, it's really about the psychological underpinnings of someone who kills for a living as much as it is the details of how he does his jobs. Fans of The Professional in particular should check this one out, as it has a similar vibe, and the artwork is just spectacular. This series picks up where the two hardcovers left off, with the Killer coming out of retirement for what looks like a messy, politically-connected job.

Orc Stain by James StokoeSpeaking of gorgeous artwork in the European vein, James Stokoe mixes European lush backgrounds with the frenetic energy and detail of manga to create one of the best fantasy comics I've ever read. His invented language for the orcs is a lot of fun, his lead character is a roguish misanthrope and it's really a perfect cross between fantasy and crime capers, with an off-beat sense of humor and some of the best chase sequences I've ever seen in comics.

Codename Knockout by Robert Rodi, Louis Small Jr., Yanick Paquette, Amanda Connor & Al RioA blast from the past, I'm not entirely sure why DC decided to print this Vertigo series from the early 2000s back in print, but I'm going to speculate it might be because of some similarities to F/X's hilarious Archer cartoon, and regardless, I'm not going to complain. Rodi's sexy, funny series about the agents of G.O.O.D., represented by the gorgeous Angela Devlin (whose mother is head of G.O.O.D.) and her handsome gay partner Go Go Fiasco as they battle the forces of E.V.I.L. (run by Angela's dad) only ran for about 24 issues, but it was good for plenty of laughs and sexy spy action at the time. I'm glad to finally get the chance to revisit it, and would highly recommend that anyone who is a fan of Archer or Danger Girl do the same.

The Question by Dennis O'Neil & Denys CowanVolume 6 reprinting this gritty series from the '80s just came out, and now, one of the holes in my '80s comics reading is finally plugged in. These six volumes reprint 36 issues of reporter and crimefighter Vic Sage and his battles against the thoroughly corrupt Hub City, O'Neil tackles crime, politics, mental illness and corruption among various other social issues. Since it's comics, these heady issues come with kung-fu, sex and shootouts. With a great cast of supporting characters, including an embattled mayor who is Vic Sage's on-again, off-again lover, and a backdrop that makes Gotham City look like Metropolis, The Question is melodramatic noir and social fable all that the same time, and it deserves its great reputation as one of the best comics of the late '80s.

The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard My prose reading habits are shameful these days, I only manage to read about a dozen books this year, but thanks to Justified, my innate love of Elmore Leonard's work and the recent Red Dead Redemption, I finally ponied up the cash to pick up this anthology of Elmore Leonard's western stories. It includes the famous 3:10 to Yuma, but there are 30 stories total in here, representing Leonard's short story work in the western genre. I can't wait to dig in.

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