With the school year ending and summer arriving faster than you know it, now's the time to update your summer reading list -- and 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 guests are Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt, the creative team behind The Sixth Gun, published by Oni Press. You'll be seeing a lot of Cullen and Brian over the next few weeks here at Robot 6, so here's the perfect opportunity to find out what comics they're into.
Lots of manga came in the mail this week, so I'm having a good time. From Tokyopop, I have Neko Ramen, which is a collection of four-panel gag strips about a cat who runs a ramen shop. Like Snakes on a Plane, the title pretty much embodies the concept. Four-panel gag manga (4-koma) are not usually funny in the same way gag strips here are, and the structure is different, so they often don't travel well. This one does, although the humor is pretty goofy, relying on a mix of cats acting like humans, cats acting like cats, and human customers trying to sort it all out. I wouldn't watch a full-length film based on this premise, but broken into short strips, it works OK.
My Girlfriend's a Geek is a gender-reversed twist on the usual Train Man/Genshiken story, because in this case the otaku is not a nerdy guy but a confident woman. Taiga is a college student who has a thing for girls who are slightly older than him. He sees a beautiful girl through a window, applies for a job at her office, and gets it, but at first he seems to get nowhere. What Yuiko is hiding from him is that she is a fujoshi, a girl otaku, who sees Taiga only as a human version of the fantasy boys in yaoi manga. Ed Sizemore really didn't like it, finding Yuiko's objectification of Taiga "unsettling." I haven't gotten that far into it yet, so I'm enjoying the romantic-comedy aspects and Rize Shinba's lovely artwork, but I may end up agreeing with Ed when I'm done. We'll see.
Sean T. Collins
Dan Clowes and minicomics are how I spent my last two weeks. Click the links for reviews of what I've been reading...
Mister Wonderful by Daniel Clowes: Clowes's New York Times Funny Pages strip reads like a trial run for his next comic...
Wilson by Daniel Clowes: Never mind the backlash -- this mean-spirited comic about the price of being mean-spirited is a black-comedy masterpiece.
Jumbly Junkery #8-9 by L. Nichols: This one-woman anthology series is manic creativity in minicomic form.
Henry & Glenn Forever by Igloo Tornado: Tom Neely and friends pay tribute to the undying love between Glenn Danzig and Henry Rollins. The feel-good comic of the year.
The Numbers of the Beasts by Shawn Cheng: A children's counting book using mythological monsters, e.g. "Nine are the heads of the hydra." Gorgeously drawn.
Wiegle for Tarzan by Matt Wiegle: In this not-very-autobiographical minicomic, the author asks for your support as he runs for New York State's official Tarzan. Yes we can!
I picked up Sunday Press Books edition of Little Sammy Sneez by Winsor McCay back on Free Comic Book Day, as my local store was having a 20 percent off on everything discount and I'd been eyeing the book for quite a while. I'm glad I got it because while it doesn't match the heights of McCay's Little Nemo, it does have some odd merits on its own.
As his name suggests, Sammy has got one hell of an achoo -- it sends, billiard balls blowing, frightens elephants, sends just about everything flying every which where and creates general chaos and devastation in its wake. Each strip is paced almost exactly the same: Adults are engaged in some important adult activity and Sammy gears up for a mother of a sneeze, which always lets loose in the next to last panel (the final one usually involving him getting a kick in the rear). As many reviewers (and the book's contributors) note, what's odd about Sammy is his complete laconic attitude and steadfast refusal to alter his ways. He never says a word and never seems to learn to use a handkerchief. You get the feeling the boy ain't quite right in the head.
What's equally interesting to me however, is how utterly oblivious the adults are to Sammy's sneezes. There he is, taking several minutes to wind up but everyone else seems to busy engaged in their own petty matters to pay any attention. It's suggests a bit of an editorial on McCay's part, especially as the Sammy strips are paired with McCay's Hungry Henrietta. That strip follows a young girl who, as a baby is basically fed whenever she's upset and, as she grows (she ages a few months every strip), her parents become mystified at what an enormous appetite she has. It's the helicopter parenting of 1905 I suppose, though there's something selfish in in the family's inability to understand Henrietta's behavior that coats a somewhat sad veneer over the whole enterprise, which is what makes it so fascinating in the first place.
It seems like lately I've been reading more prose and non-fiction than comics, and a lot of my comic reading involves delving into some of the books that inspired me in my youth. I could go on for hours about my “go-to” books—my all-time favorites—such as Micronauts and Dreadstar and Man-Thing. I’ll steer away from those until some other time. Instead, here are a few graphic novels and comics that I've really been digging lately.
BATMAN AND ROBIN by Grant Morrison
I probably don't have to encourage most comic fans to read this one. Here's a secret, though: I'm not a huge Batman fan. I like the character, sure, and I have a ton of back issues stowed away in the long boxes hidden in the basement. But he's not a character I go out of my way to follow. So, this is for the non-Batman fan. It was Morrison's run on New X-Men that got me back into comics after a long hiatus, so I was excited by the prospect his take on the “new” Batman. He plunges the reader right into the new Batman and Robin pairing, and I didn't miss Bruce Wayne at all. The new characters (especially Scarlet and Flamingo) alone are worth the price of admission. There's a little Batman back story that may cause brand new readers to stumble just a bit, but not much. If you're passingly aware of the Caped Crusader, you'll be able to keep up without a problem.
Jack Kirby's THE DEMON and DEVIL DINOSAUR
One from Marvel. One from DC. Both from the 70s. Both awesome. I just re-read these series in the collected formats. Holy Cow! Talk about no-holds-barred craziness! These are the types of books that hook readers with their wild plots and eye-popping character designs. And it’s not some sense of nostalgia that fuels my love for these books. Okay … maybe a little … but that’s only part of it. The most important thing about these stories, written over thirty years ago, is that they show a level of fun and creativity that I often fear is lost in newer comics. As a writer, I aspire to capture some of that anything-can-happen wonder in my work.
AMERICAN VAMPIRE by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, and Stephen King
Finally a vampire comic for horror fans! I guess there’s nothing wrong with Lestat and company, but I’ve always preferred my bloodsuckers to be a little more down and dirty, and that’s what I got with the story of Skinner Sweet, the first American Vampire. If this series keeps going the way it has, it will quickly become one of my favorite Vertigo series. Hey, it's got the Old West and the Roaring Twenties, two eras that are obviously near and dear to me, and I'm eager to see the history of the titular character unfold.
SIEGE by Brian Michael Bendis
When I picked this up, I really just wanted to read a story about superheroes beating each other up. That's what I got, too! It was a lot of fun, and it's interesting to see the culmination of events that were set into motion years ago. A book like this, which seems a little tight with just four issues, is all about moments of coolness, like Thor’s entrance in issue 1, Captain America’s arrival on the final page of issue 2, and Iron Man’s appearance in issue 3. Wait a sec! All my favorite bits are when characters arrive on the scene. Well, I guess Bendis writes damn good entrances.
SCALPED by Jason Aaron
When I first started reading comic books, I would have never thought that a book like Scalped would by one of my favorite titles. Here’s a book that has everything going for it. A great premise. A terrific cast. A suitably damaged protagonist who can “break it off” when he needs to, and a complex, evolving storyline that never lets you get too comfortable. One of the things I like most is that I started out thinking this was the story of Dashiell Bad Horse, but as the tale unfolds, I’m thinking this is really crime boss Red Crow’s story.
SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING by Alan Moore
Again, there’s probably a little nostalgia here. When I first read Alan Moore’s take on Swamp Thing, it was when my younger brother bought a bunch of them at the flea market. The stories have been reissued in some beautiful hardcover editions, so I couldn’t help but dive back into them. It’s strikes me that the individual covers to those early Moore issues really couldn’t prepare the reader for the shock and awe awaiting them. The covers often looked like your standard monster vs. monster fare. There’s nothing wrong with that. I love that stuff! But when you opened the book, you were thrown into this poetic, creepy, disturbing world that changed the way American comic creators approached horror forever. And if that wasn’t enough for me, the confrontation between Arcane and the “new” Swamp Thing still makes me giddy with the level of whoop-ass unleashed on the page.
A Bunch of Them There Manga Books
Lately, I've been getting into a lot of manga titles. It started with an exploration of J-Horror in comics, because I wanted to immerse myself in the surreal creepiness of books like Uzumaki and Tomie by Junji Ito. The structure of those books is appealing to me, but I don’t know how they manage to suspend my disbelief from beginning to end. In Uzumaki, most of the stories (especially in the beginning) stand on their own, and the horror gets more and more bizarre. I guess it’s a little like reading someone else’s nightmare. It’s tough for comics to be truly scary, but these are definitely unsettling.
I think it was Brian who turned me on to Death Note and Parasyte, both of which I enjoyed from beginning to end. What I like most about these stories is that the creators really take their time developing the characters and letting the plot unfold, sometimes over the course of dozens of issues. Along the way, they manage to toss complication after complication into the mix, so there’s always something new to keep the reader’s attention, even in the midst of page after page of exposition. I just really dig these complex plots and characters ... and the more fantastic elements are always a lot of fun.
Currently, I'm reading Pluto, which for a book inspired by an episode of Astro Boy is a damn fine mystery. Again, this one is focused on character development rather than robotic battles. I went into this one without knowing a whole lot about it, and I think I’m better off for it. I’m only three volumes in, but the stories of North No. 2 and Brando were surprisingly sad and touching.
When I was first asked “What Are You Reading?” I kind of panicked. I stay pretty busy, I'm on a budget, and I have this constant guilt about not reading enough comics. So I started to put together a list of what I've been reading recently that I could recommend. I really hoped that I could come up with 3, maybe 4 books. That'd be fine. That'd be enough. I had to stop my list at 10. That surprised me. So, what follows, are a few titles from that list—the ones I've read most recently and was most excited to share.
DUNGEON: This is one of my all-time favorite series! It's a great day when I walk into a store and see that a new volume has come out. My only complaint is that there aren't nearly enough of them (translated to English) and they don't come out often enough. Just this week I picked up Dungeon Twilight: The New Centurions.
I really have a hard time describing this book to people when trying to recommend it. It is sort of a parody of fantasy or sword and sorcery comics but at the same time it is so much more. At first glance, it is very cartoony, with all the characters being anthropomorphic animals and monsters, and you immediately think it's a “funny book”. And it is a funny book. But it's also, at times, dark and violent and sometimes existential and sad.
One of the things that is really interesting about this series is the rotating cast of French creators. Every volume, as far as I can tell, is either written, or co-written, by the series creator's Joann Sfar (The Rabbi's Cat, Vampire Loves) and Lewis Trondheim (Little Nothings, Harum Scarum). They also dip in and do art chores from time to time as well as some other French luminaries like Blutch and Christophe Blain and many more.
I'm absolutely in love with all these creators so it only makes sense that if you put them all in the same universe and let them run wild that the final product of that will be something that I can't resist. There is this quality that they all share and I describe it as immediacy. There is an immediacy to the art and the quality of line. Nothing seems labored over—it's like a pure love a just drawing exudes every panel. It's kinda hard to convey. But that immediacy also extends to the storytelling. You are given an almost stream of consciousness sense to the plotting—like the creators have no idea what an outline is. It may be a quality that is intentionally brought to the stories by masters of storytelling—kind of like jazz masters who are so intimate and knowledgeable of the art that they can then break it down and improvise. But I'm constantly left with the sense that they're making it up as they go along—until the end, when the whole journey comes together beautifully.
But maybe I'm just over thinking it. It is just a funny book, after all.
FANTASTIC FOUR: WORLD'S GREATEST: I'm one of those people who finds Mark Millar hit or miss. In fact, the only time I ever really enjoy his work is when he's working with Bryan Hitch. I loved Ultimates. I liked Ultimates 2. I wasn't sure what to expect from their work on the Fantastic Four. Now, the Fantastic Four, similarly, is hit or miss. I really like the FF but I tend to like them best when the series most closely resembles the tone, imagination and scope of Lee and Kirby when they were in their prime on this series. I'm a big fan of John Byrne's run on the book in the 80's (in my opinion, along with Simonson's THOR, one of the best series of the 80's). The last time I was compelled to pick up FF was when Waid and Weiringo were on the book. So it was with trepidation that I picked up the recent Fantastic Four: World's Greatest (collecting FF #554-561). My concerns were laid to rest pretty quickly. I found a series that was as exciting and epic as any previous incarnation while at the same time adding depth to the characters (especially Sue and Reed) without sacrificing their core personalities. It goes without saying that the art is amazing. Nobody stages epic action like Hitch and he's firing on all cylinders here. This book was exactly what I wanted from a post-millennial FF book and has guaranteed that I will be back for more.
JASON AARON: Okay, I realize this is a cheat. I was going to just tell everyone that I was reading Scalped, that it is the best ongoing on the stands, and it's generally all around awesome. There really isn't anything I can say about Scalped that hasn't already been said by everyone else. It's a testament to his writing that a book that, conceptually (a crime series set on a Native American reservation), didn't really appeal to me ahs become my favorite ongoing series. It's a book that has a rich ensemble (the main character, Dashiell Bad Horse, disappears for a whole arc and you don't mind) and is emotionally and psychologically dark and complex--all the while, being a great thrill ride. But, I couldn't mention Scalped and not also mention where it has taken me.
I wonder if Aaron hopes that his work for Marvel might in some way be a gateway drug to discovering, what is obviously a more personal work, Scalped. I know that it has actually been the opposite for me.
I don't generally read a lot of superhero books, I just tend to dip my toe in here and there (usually when Ed Brubaker is involved). But, in the past couple weeks I've found myself tugged toward the Marvel Universe. Specifically, the work of Aaron. Already a Scalped fan, I found myself in the possession of the first arc of Aaron's PunisherMAX series. This was essentially a Kingpin origin story. I've never found the Kingpin more compelling, smart and dangerous as I did in this series. The Punisher, in this series, is more of an engine for the story. He seems less a character and more a force of nature. Kind of like the character of Shigur in No Country for Old Men. And Aaron's command of the comic language is on full display here with flashbacks and parallel narratives—just a wonderfully constructed comic. Did I mention that Steve Dillon delivers some of his trademark, mundane ultraviolence? The arc that just started in the series features Bullseye. Hell yeah. Ya got me, Mr. Aaron. I'm sold.
So there I was. I loved Scalped. I was intrigued enough to pick up PunisherMAX and I loved it. So what am I to do when I see Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine...written by Jason Aaron? Not something I'd pick up, generally. But, with Aaron's name on it I've gotta give it a chance, right? Well, glad I did. Again, he does a does a great job of constructing this dual narrative, with two distinct and iconic comic voices, and all the while making it look easy. It has that sense of pure fun and adventure that superhero comics, on a whole, seem to have lost. It's a book that I want to read on the floor of my living room on a lazy Saturday afternoon. I'm on board. And I'm also compelled to go seek out some of his other recent Marvel work. From Scalped to Spidey and Wolvie--well played Mr. Aaron.
Some of the other books I wanted to write about but didn't have the space for: CRIMINAL, SCOTT PILGRIM, HELLBOY/BPRD, Fraction's INVINCIBLE IRON MAN and Matt Kindt's 3 STORY.