What Are You Reading?

Welcome to What Are You Reading. Our guest this week is the artist extraordinaire Jim Rugg, best known for books like Street Angel and The Plain Janes, and whose latest book, Afrodisiac (with writer Brian Maruca), arrived in comic stores this past Wednesday and has been winning raves everywhere it goes. (FYI look for an interview with Mr. Rugg courtesy of our own Mr. O'Shea sometime soon).

Tim O'Shea: While I read Justice League of America 41, I defer to Tom Bondurant's take on the issue from earlier this week.

I had heard there were two transposed word balloons in Batman & Robin 7, but even knowing that I initially mistook the botched dialogue between Batman and Batwoman to be some Morrison weird plot twist. One question about the dead Batman that appears in this issue: Did they really bury the poor bastard in his costume? The anticipation for Cameron Stewart is worth the hype -- the guy can do action scenes.

So you may remember me as the guy complaining about the lateness and lack of suspense regarding Captain America: Reborn. And yet, I come here to praise the final installment in the six-part miniseries. Why? After being used as more of a prop and less of a character in a good chunk (but not all) of Brubaker's Cap run, Sharon Carter is instrumental in the resolution of the story.

Nice to have Astro City: The Dark Age (Book Four) Issue 1 (dang that's a mouthful) in my stack this week. Is it possible that Brent Anderson is such a consistently good artist, we actually take his excellence for granted? At one point in the issue, a character called The Green Man (Busiek's potential homage to Swamp Thing) appears -- and I have to ask the obvious here. Visually, does the character look like Alan Moore, particularly in the eyes?

In preparation for an upcoming interview with Jim Rugg, I dove headfirst into Afrodisiac, Rugg's collaboration with Brian Maruca in tribute to 1970s pop culture as well as blaxploitation (and other erasof comics). All that matters to me is the scene with Dick Nixon as a wrestler, storytellers need to do more absurd crap like that.

Oni Press was kind enough to give me a sneak peek at the latest installment in Chris Schweizer's Crogan Adventures -- Crogan's March (coming out February 3). This round captures the 1912 Legionnaire life of Peter Crogan. Never have I seen an artist make chins and ears (as well as other body parts) both disturbing and hysterical. And that's just one aspect of what makes me enjoy Schweizer's work.

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Chris Mautner: Almost Silent by Jason. This is a collection of previously released graphic novels -- Meow Baby, Tell Me Something, You Can't Get There From Here and The Living and the Dead -- by the Norwegian artist Jason that -- as the title suggests -- are mostly wordless. Most of these books are now out of print, so Fantagraphics opted to collect them together in one big hardcover, similar in design to the recent Low Moon.

Anyway this is all stellar material for the most part, especially Something and You Can't,, which trade on Jason's perennial theme of love found and lost in rather odd settings. So if you weren't able to get these books when they first came out, I highly recommend doing so when this new edition comes out, which I imagine should be sometime soon.

I've also, thanks to racking up points on my Amazon Visa card, been catching up with a number of manga that I had stopped following, mainly due to lack of funds. It's great, for example to finally read the last volume of Naoki Urasawa's Monster, a conclusion I thought was very fitting and satisfying and consistent with what had come before, though I recall there was some grumbling when it initially came out.

I'm also catching up with the apocalyptic disaster manga Dragon Head by Minetaro Mochizuki. Nothing in the final volumes I've read so far (I'm up to Vol. 9 now with one more to go) matches the tense, claustrophobic horror of those initial four volumes, but it's still a pretty freak, compelling ride.

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Jim Rugg: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

I’m about halfway through Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. I read a bunch of noir (Himes, Willeford, Westlake, Jim Johnson, George Higgin’s Friends of Eddit Coyle, Chandler, Hammett) a few years ago. Then kind of burnt out on the genre a bit. I liked the Crying of Lot 49 but didn’t feel up to Gravity’s Rainbow. So when my local library happened to have a copy of Inherent Vice in stock, I checked it out. One of my problems with reading is that I rarely find time to read. This leads to me starting a lot more books than I finish. I end up reading in five-minute segments or when I’m exhausted before I go to bed, and I lose interest. Inherent Vice looks like it may be headed for that fate. I’ve renewed it twice, and haven’t crossed the halfway point. I blame myself. It’s really not you, Mr. Pynchon, it’s me. I sort of enjoy the way he depicts 60s California, taking into account the perspective that comes with the benefit of 40+ years of hindsight. I say I sort of enjoy it because sometimes it feels a bit like cheating, although most of the time the tone of the genre is so strong, I can’t help myself from liking it.

The protagonist is a pot head p.i., not dissimilar from the Coen Bros. Big Lebowski. The atmosphere and sense of dread if not outright danger feels more noir than Lebowski did, and Pynchon’s dick is more in line with a traditional detective than the Dude. If I can find a few hours to dig into this soon, I think I’ll enjoy it. Otherwise, perhaps we’ll meet again in the future.

Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

While I’ve had Inherent Vice checked out of the local library, I bought a used copy of Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer (the first quarter of his Book of the New Sun), read it, enjoyed it, and sold it back to the same store. I haven’t read a lot of a science fiction or fantasy. I’m currently drawing a book that has fantasy elements for Dark Horse (the Guild, written by and based on Felicia Day’s web series of the same name). So I’ve begun looking at more fantasy art, online games, and Conan comics. During a recent trip to Portland, my friend (and awesome cartoonist) Zack Soto recommended Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. The first book was a lot of fun. It alternated between world building, advancing the plot, and philosophizing. I enjoyed it enough to try to tell my wife about it. She wasn’t interested or I wasn’t interesting. I expect to give the second volume a try one of these days, which is an endorsement. Without spoiling it, I’ll say that it’s set in the far future, but modern civilization has decayed to a point where the world feels very old. Most scientific knowledge has been lost, at least to the masses. And it now interacts with the population in a way that is indistinguishable from magic. The hero begins the book as an apprentice torturer, and some of the passages about his duty, his awareness of how others see him, and his observations about himself, his trade, and his place in the world are my favorite parts of the book.

Low Moon by Jason and Troublemakers by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics)

I’ve been reading Low Moon at night before bed. I love Jason’s work. And this format flatters it (4 panels per page). I may do a review of this book elsewhere, so I won’t say too much about it. One thing though and this relates to the other comic/graphic novel I’ve most recently read, Gilbert Hernandez’s Troublemakers, is that I spend a lot of time working out page layout in my own comics. But both of these books feature layouts of 4 panels per page of uniform size (Troublemakers – 4 horizontal, wide panels; Low Moon – 2 x 2 grid). I liked both of these comics a lot. Between these books and thinking about doing my next work online and in a format that is flexible to various viewing and reading platforms, it makes me question the value of page layout and panel variation. These comics never break their panel layout once, yet both were fantastic.

Low Moon featured five short stories of various genre and gorgeous cartooning. Troublemakers follows a cast of conmen as they double-cross one another until they run out of rope and hang themselves. It too features amazing cartooning. It’s very cinematic, but it’s not drawn with attention to realism like cinematic comics frequently tend to be (I’m referring here to work like the Authority and the Ultimates that are often described as cinematic due to the use of wide panels and heavy photo-reference). Instead, the storytelling relies on Hernandez’s masterful use of staging and talent with composition. His ability to spot blacks, place textures, and overall cartooning/drawing skills made this crime story a delight to read.

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Lose #1 by Michael Deforge (Koyama Press)

This comic book was a pleasant surprise. The cover is beautiful and the interior continues that theme. The story combines a number of elements – autobio, surrealism, and outstanding drawing ability. What spoke to me was the cartoonist’s use of Justice League characters. It reminded me a little of Ben Jones’ ability to use pop culture icons in a meaningful, critical, and surprising way without resorting to irony. I see this recontextualization of familiar characters more frequently with younger people than when I was growing up. I would have encountered non-sanctioned characters like this in Mad or Cracked magazine, or perhaps in some sketch comedy display. I find this nuanced treatment of pop culture icons (and I realize ‘icon’ might be stretching it here) fascinating. These fictional characters enter our life more completely and in a more complex way than they ever have before. My reaction to this infiltration is anxious – a reminder of my age, perhaps, but when Walt Disney buys one of the most successful commercial cultural movers and shakers of the last 10 years (referring to the rise of superhero movies here), it’s hard not to react with some trepidation. In any case, I am deviating a bit far from what I read with this line of thought. So back to Lose – a thoughtful reading experience, one my eyeballs quite enjoyed.

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