Welcome to another round of What Are You Reading. Our guest this week is scholar, author and Comics Reporter columnist Bart Beaty, whose translation (along with Nick Nguyen) of Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books by Jean-Paul Gabilliet of the University of Bordeaux just came out this week via the University Press of Mississippi.
Click on the link to find out what Mr. Beaty and the rest of us are reading this week, and then let us know what's on your plate in the comments section.
[caption id="attachment_32107" align="alignright" width="100" caption="Blue Beetle: Shellshocked"]
Tom Bondurant: I finally got around to reading the first two (current) Blue Beetle collections, Shellshocked and Road Trip. Written by Keith Giffen and John Rogers, and drawn by various combinations of Cully Hamner, Rafael Albuquerque, Duncan Rouleau, and probably some others I'm forgetting, they were light and entertaining. For the most part they avoided the standard super-teen pitfalls -- no school bully, no unrequited love interest, and only a couple of family freak-outs -- in favor of Jaime Reyes' adventures with a "magic scarab" welded to his spine. Thus, there's a lot of flying and zapping and frenzied, witty dialogue; and despite the bullpen of artists both books maintain a clean, consistent look. Now to track down the later collections, which the local library doesn't have....
It was also a good week for me in terms of the weekly-comics haul. I enjoyed the history of Negative Man in Doom Patrol #6, the mounting tension in World Of New Krypton #11, and John Ostrander and Gail Simone's collaboration in [Zombie] Suicide Squad #67. However, as you might expect, two retro-styled books were the real standouts. The unfortunately-named Marvel Boy: The Uranian #1 (written by Jeff Parker, drawn by Felix Ruiz) is nonetheless a droll blend of '50s paranoia, Silver Age foreshadowing, and unbridled optimism. Ruiz's scratchy lines (call him the "Sienkiewicz-ian") balance what might have otherwise come across as broad parody. Intead, it's just good-natured ribbing.
The issue which made me smile the broadest, though, was The Great Ten #3 (written by Tony Bedard, pencilled by Scott McDaniel, inked by Andy Owens). This month's spotlight is on Thundermind, described early on as "the Chinese Superman." We don't get too much farther before realizing that's more than just shorthand. In fact, this issue is essentially a classic Superman story, love triangle and all. It even ends with a wink. Admittedly, it is not the dutiful representation of Chinese culture I would have preferred from the miniseries, but it was nice to see an old formula used in an unexpected way.
Finally, just this afternoon I read Gene Yang's American Born Chinese and really liked it. I had heard good things since it originally appeared, of course, and they were all on the money. I liked the three-track structure, I liked Yang's style, and I really liked his economical, evocative storytelling. The material wasn't unfamiliar, but Yang presented it with flair.
[caption id="attachment_32108" align="alignright" width="100" caption="World War One"]
Sean T. Collins: I'm pretty sure I said I'd be reading this ages ago, but I'm finally doing it: World War One: A Short History by Norman Stone. Stone, a figure of some controversy in UK academic circles from what I can gather, writes up the entire Great War in under 200 pages. His approach is fascinating: Like Ben Gazzara's Brad Wesley in Road House, he approaches horrific violence with a sense of wry bemusement. It's as though World War I was such a nightmarish waste that any history of it skips straight past tragedy and into farce.
Brigid Alverson: I read the first two volumes of Dan Hipp’s Gyakushu and part of the third; he will be putting it up on the web next week, and it’s well worth a look. Gyakushu is a revenge story set in a vaguely medieval universe with some superhero and fantasy elements; I didn’t care for it much the first time I read it, several years ago, but it has grown on me. Reading the second volume, I realized that the story was more complex than I had originally thought. It’s not for the faint of heart — there’s quite a bit of violence and even cannibalism—but Hipp has woven together a pretty good story, and he uses interesting visual conventions (masks, hieroglyphics) at times to help it along. His art is really the strong suit of the books—it’s strong and simple but not primitive. You know this guy can draw.
On a much lighter note, I got NBM’s Classics Illustrated Deluxe edition of Treasure Island this week and I couldn’t put it down. This was originally a French comic, and you can tell from the style: It’s crisp and clear, with a touch (just a touch) of manga influence. The backgrounds really draw you in, pulling you into the word without ever making you think “Boy, that must have been a lot of work.” For a story like this, with its period settings and shipboard scenes, that’s quite a challenge. As for the writing, well, it’s a ripping yarn that grabbed me when I was six and is having the same effect on me now.
Tim O'Shea: "In the production of these first two issues of Stumptown, I’ve used a lot of photo reference, and I’m still mixed on my thoughts about its usefulness. Certainly when I’m trying to convey detail and “believability” in a background, translating a photo of an actual Portland location is the most effective way to do so. But there is a struggle between the documentary aspect of that photo and the less “real” aspect of the characters’ clothing, hairstyles and features. A great deal of the work goes not into making things look real and not into adding detail, but finding the proper level of abstraction to make the work as cohesive as possible."
To get to the end of the second issue of Stumptown and find an essay (from which I just quoted) by series artist Matthew Southworth (with illustrations and other behind-the-scene material) was a surprise. To liken this series to the 1970s Rockford Files is apt, in the role of Rockford's dad, Rocky, we instead have Dex's special needs brother, Ansel, a relationship that allows writer Greg Rucka and Southworth to show that Dex has compassion and--despite her rough and tumble life as an investigator -- is strongly loyal to her family. The best scene in this issue, however, is when Dex runs into a former lover, Volk, down at the precinct. Southworth pulls it off, with no dialogue, essentially by dropping out the background and allowing the white space to give focus to the two former lovers' respective resentment/baggage. It's a little early in the game to say this, but Stumptown's in the running for best of 2010 -- it only made honorable mention in my 2009 list because I thought it unfair to rank it as the best with only one issue released.
Somehow I missed issue 2 of Chris Roberson and Shawn McManus' Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love, so when issue 3 came out this week, I made sure to backtrack and get them both. Vertigo editorial will be happy to see me write the following -- why is this only a limited series? I see enough potential (particularly with the historical flashbacks that Roberson's injecting the narrative with) for an ongoing comic. The subplot at her store, Glass Shipper Shoes, with her assistant Cordwainer, is almost as interesting as the main plot. Plus who draws monsters better than McManus?
Vertigo Comics is really gaining my attention by adding folks like Jeff Lemire to their monthly output. Maybe many folks saw the conclusion to this first arc on Sweet Tooth coming from a mile away, but I sure as hell did not. Pick up issue 5 this week, if you have not already. I hope on many levels, wherever this story goes, that this is not the last we see of Mr. Jepperd and that's all I'm going to say.
Gail Simone: the industry owes you a great deal for all you've done in support of John Ostrander this past year or so, while he addressed his sight concerns. But even better we owe you for getting Ostrander writing more for DC. If there's any chance you and Ostrander would consider writing a monthly comic together I would buy it. To see you and Ostrander writing Amanda Waller in this week's Blackest Night: Suicide Squad was a true pleasure to this goofy fanboy.
To be honest, if any member of the Agents of ATLAS deserve a miniseries, my first preference would be Ken Hale. My second choice would be Marvel Boy: The Uranian. Marvel went with my second choice it appears. I agree with Tom that Felix Ruiz's art reminds me of a very young Bill Sienkiewicz and I'm surprised to see he's lettering himself as well. I'm curious how or why that came to be, as his word balloon placement is badly scaled (too big, too much white space) in comparison to the Jeff Parker written dialogue. Part of me enjoys the Russ Heath and Bill Everett reprints that accompany the main tale -- but I really wish Marvel editorial would acknowledge on some level whythey choose these reprints. The Heath story is an origin tale in part, so that makes sense. But I'd much rather have more new stories from Parker myself. I'll be back in February for the next issue, either way.
[caption id="attachment_32122" align="alignright" width="121" caption="The Comics Journal #291"]
Chris Mautner: One of my local comic book stores (I'm extremely lucky in that I have more than one) had a big New Year's sale, and I managed to pick up a number of books I've had my eye on, including the trade collection of the original Omega the Unknown series by Steve Gerber and Jim Mooney (and many more). I'm almost finished it now and am overall digging it. It's really a strange, quirky superhero series that tries very hard not to be a superhero series. It's a shame that Gerber never got a chance to finish it, as Steven Grant's attempt at a quick wrap up in The Defenders seems kind of perfunctory.
Now that The Comics Journal has more or less wrapped up their monthly print editions and gone online with #300, I'm trying to go back and read back issues from my pile that I didn't have time for previously, starting with #291, which features interviews with Tim Sale and Josh Simmonds, as well as a great critical thinkpiece by Gary Groth on Ralph Steadman and Hunter S. Thompson. That alone was worth the cover price.
Finally, we have Only One Wish, a new manga series by Mia Ikumi, who's responsible for Tokyo Mew Mew and other crimes against art and humanity, no doubt. This is another one of those "be careful what you wish for" manga that seems so popular in Japan, this time with a mysterious witch girl who grants wishes via a cell phone that she keeps dropping in front of whiny jr. high school girls. As you might imagine, most of their wishes revolve around unattainable boys or ... well, really it's just boys. I basically found it to be a hairsbreadth short of a complete waste of time, but I suppose if you're a 12 year old girl who finds Twilight too demanding it might ring your bell.
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Bart Beaty: I’m between terms at the university at the moment, so much of my reading seems oriented towards things that have just wrapped up and things that I’m about to embark upon.
The only class that I’m teaching this term is on the cinema of the Coen Brothers, so I’ve been reading almost everything that has been published about them. The recent anthology The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe has some really great work in it. Also, this morning I read Ethan Coen’s collection of one-act plays, Almost an Evening twice. I’m still not sure what I think about it, but it has some good bits.
I’ve also thrown myself back into the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard as I am giving a lecture on his 1962 film Vivre sa vie at the Calgary Cinematheque. In anticipation of this I picked up Richard Brody’s recent biography, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. I had just planned to read the material about the early 1960s, but the book is so immensely readable that I find myself reading intently even about the films I haven’t seen.
As for comics, I got a package from L’Association recently that had the new Ruppert & Mulot book: Irene et les clochards. This is their first attempt at a “serious” book, and its very good, although only the first part of a larger project, which I always find frustrating. Generally I try not to read anything serialized, even if the chunks are book-length, but I broke the rule again for the first volume of Dungeon Quest by Joe Daly. Fantagraphics will release this in the summer, and if you’re a Daly fan you won’t be disappointed by this one.
Finally, I’ve been trying to catch up on some of the superhero comics that I missed in the 1990s, including huge swaths of Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and Warren Ellis comics. I thought about downloading all of Marvel’s Civil War series and spin-offs, but then came to my senses.