Like a train eager to meet its next destination, What Are You Reading chugs along into the new year without ever once looking back. Our guest this week is the ridiculously prolific cartoonist, critic and blogger Shaenon Garrity (who can also be found here). In addition to her latest comic Skin Horse, you can read her regular reviews at The Comics Journal and she has a regular column over at Comixology.
But if you want to know what Shaenon's reading this week, you'll have to click on the link below.
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Brigid Alverson: I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: DC folded Minx too soon. The series was really hitting its stride in its second season, with solid books aimed at slightly older readers and a more authentic voice. Token is like that. As the mother of teenagers, I actually found it a bit hard to read — but that’s the point. They aren’t writing for me. Token is set in Miami’s South Beach in 1987, and the authors have just the right amount of setting—it’s not crazy-glitzy, it’s comfortable and a bit down-at-the-heels. Our protagonist, Shira, lost her mother as a child and lives in a hotel with her grandmother and her father; her best friend is a foul-mouthed, cigarette-smoking former movie actress. Shira’s heart is in the right place, and she loves her family, but things start spinning out of control for her. Her father starts dating his secretary, who is a lovely woman, but all Shira can see is that he isn’t paying as much attention to her. On an impulse she shoplifts a ring, and soon shoplifting is a habit for her. Complicating all this is a mysterious young man from Spain who seems to materialize a lot; when he catches her shoplifting, the two team up. Of course it all ends in a big disaster, but what I like about it is that this is not a straight moral tale; there’s a bit of ambiguity to it, and the sense that even though the ending isn’t entirely happy — the last page features a picture of Shira glaring at her father’s wedding — that everyone will get through it in their own way.
I picked up the first volume of Inio Asano’s What a Wonderful World recently, and if nothing else, it made me appreciate the joys of being over 30. This volume is a collection of stories about young people — middle school through early 20s—who are plodding through a gray, depressing world, hemmed in by a rigid school-work system that makes no allowance for individual quirks. Not that it would make much difference for Asano’s characters, because they don’t have any quirks; their defining characteristic is their dissatisfaction. Each story briefly sketches a turning point, a decision that must be made, and each character does show a spark of life at that moment. Aside from that one moment, though, they spend most of their time either complaining or quietly enduring. Most of the characters appear in several stories, so you get to see more than one facet of them, but it’s like a Cubist painting in that the different sides never seem to quite fit together. Still, I liked the book better the second time I read it, when I started to see the interrelationships between the stories.
[caption id="attachment_31369" align="alignright" width="98" caption="Captain America: Bicentennial Battles"]
Tom Bondurant: When I went out of town for Christmas, I took with me the final two collections of Jack Kirby's mid-'70s return to Captain America. I had read these stories previously, but my expectations were colored both by Kirby's DC work and by his more cosmic efforts for Marvel like Eternals and 2001. This time I let go of all that and found a lot to appreciate in these two books. Bicentennial Battles contains the oversized "treasury" issue which features Cap bouncing around through American history, as well as a monthly storyline about asylum escapees living in another dimension. The Swine finds Cap battling a cruel prison warden in the South American jungles, before being waylaid and blinded by the combined villainy of Arnim Zola and the Red Skull. So yeah, it did seem rather familiar in light of recent Cap developments. However, Kirby uses Cap not just for square-jawed heroics -- and there are a lot of those -- but truly as the living embodiment of the American spirit. Obviously this comes through most clearly in the "Bicentennial Battles" story, because who can badmouth Captain America surrounded by eager, optimistic kids? It carries through, though, to the end of Kirby's monthly involvement, where a blind Cap fights a determined assassin. Since OMAC started as Kirby's take on a future Captain America, I may have to re-read it next.
Staying in the '70s, I've been reading Showcase Presents The Warlord Volume 1, written and drawn by Mike Grell (with some inks by Vince Colletta). It starts off a bit awkwardly -- opening narration talks about the timelessness of the story and then establishes a specific date -- and it never really justifies its pulp-adventure conventions (everyone speaks English, and ancient texts look like modern tech manuals). Wardrobes are skimpy, of course, and every few issues Grell describes how our hero Travis Morgan sheds his veneer of civilization to become a savage. Grell's figures, and his use of perspective, are sometimes jarring as well. Still, it's pretty dynamic stuff, mixing sword-and-sorcery elements with some sci-fi, andtied together by Morgan's nominal charm. The earliest stories are around 17 pages, and Grell tends to keep the immediate cast pretty small, so although he's establishing a lot of mythology, it's all in manageable bites.
Last night I finally got around to reading all four issues of Beasts Of Burden (written by Evan Dorkin, drawn by Jill Thompson) in one big chunk. I'd read the first issue and bought the next three, but never found the time to follow up. Boy, am I sorry I waited. This is a beautifully written, exquisitely drawn series which (as if I needed to tell you) concerns a group of dogs and cats who fight demons. From the giant frog to the puppies' spirits, from the teenage boy to the rat king, each issue worked as a self-contained story while simultaneously setting up a much larger plot. I presume that will be addressed in a follow-up miniseries, but for now I have to visit the BoB stories online at darkhorse.com.
Finally, thanks to the very generous folks at W.W. Norton, I got a big box of graphic novels a couple of days ago, including R. Crumb's The Book Of Genesis Illustrated. Now, I have read the original a few times, and it is pretty much the closest thing the Bible has to a soap opera, so I can't wait to see how Crumb handles the various family dramas. At the moment, though, I have only read the first few chapters of Crumb's adaptation, with Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden of Eden. It's as good as I was expecting, although Crumb sticks pretty close to a conventional grid. Maybe I was expecting something more like Kirby.... :-)
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Tim O'Shea: I don't know if James Robinson's ear for dialogue has degraded in recent years or my standards have been elevated. But as much as I enjoy the general plot direction of Superman 695 in terms of Mon-El's arc, it is supremely undermined by Robinson's penchant for starting bits of Mon-El's dialogue with "'K" (as in OK [as in Mon-El is a 13-year old]).
I'm hard pressed to single out my favorite part of Fantastic Four 574, the Franklin surprise birthday party with a reveal via his mom making all the partygoers visible; the party itself; the Spider-Man cameo (complete with Peter/Johnny banter) or the letters column. Jonathan Hickman continues to deliver an engagingly fun version of the Fantastic Four.
Fred Van Lente really surprised me in Spider-Man 616 with the Sandman character development/fix he's constructed to explain how he could have once been a villain and once been a hero. I could actually see a series of some kind build out of this. I doubt Marvel could get Javier Pulido on a monthly, but man the scenarios he came up with for Sandy were outstanding. I was sad that it was not more than a two-parter honestly, but like it's often said: "Leave 'em asking for more."
Back to Mr. Hickman, he gave me back Dum Dum Dugan (heroes with bowlers need to increase in 2010)--and for that alone (and Nick Fury of course) I continue to love, love, love Secret Warriors. Though I assume the book will end once Siege plays out to its conclusion.
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Matt Maxwell: As a Kindle was my big present this year, I've been mostly reading stuff on that.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF HORROR, Noel CarrollWherein Mr. Carroll presents a unified theory of what makes horror tick in literature and film and other popular media. There's some interesting stuff to chew on in here, but part of me wonders "why?" For me horror is pretty much whatever horrifies, and worrying whether or not ALIEN is or is not horror (it is) and strict genre definitions aren't at the forefront. However Mr. Carroll is presenting some interesting tools with which to dissect this group of aesthetic experiences. Still working my way through this one.
THE COMPLETE CONAN, Robert E. HowardThe granddaddy of them all. Only read a handful of these, and I'm finding the prose less...lusty and gusto-filled than I expected it. Perhaps Mr. Howard really hits his stride later on. Just picking at this stuff in my (hahahaha) spare time.
THE CALL OF CTHULHU, H.P. LovecraftGrabbed a couple collections of Mr. Lovecraft's work as well, just to have something to chew on. I still remain un-frightened by these stories, no matter how provocative they are or how influential they have been to writers (including myself, though I can't imagine two prose styles and outlooks that are more opposed than mine and his).
PUNISHERMAX, Jason Aaron and Steve DillonJason Aaron's take on Wilson Fisk? He's a hard man. Calculating, remorseless, and yes, he has a loving wife and son, but somehow I feel like it's all an act. I'm interested to see where this first arc goes and if I'll continue my monthly purchase of these or wait on trades. There's a whole lot of potential here and I'm betting that the creative team can deliver on the promise of these first couple of issues.
[caption id="attachment_31405" align="alignright" width="98" caption="The Bloody Crown of Conan"]
Sean Collins: Well what have we here, a rare WAYR appearance by yours truly! As I think I've said around here before, there's usually not much of a point to me letting y'all know what I'm reading, because in the event that you're interested, you'll find out soon enough in the thrice-weekly comics reviews I post on my main blog. But right now I've got enough of a review backlog that I finally have a little time to indulge in some prose. And on cold winter nights like this, nothing warms me up more than watching Conan slice and dice his way across Hyboria in The Bloody Crown of Conan. This is the second of three volumes collecting all of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories in chronological order. The imagination on display, the white-knuckle pacing and visceral violence, are as impressive as all get-out. But what really gets me is the underlying idea that the world is beset by forces so cruelly irrational and horrible that the only way to get through it all is to be a bit of a barbarian.
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Chris Mautner: At SPX this past fall, I entered a drawing Fanfare/Ponent Mon was holding on a whim and, surprisingly enough, won a couple of books, including the first volume of Summit of the Gods, by Jiro Taniguchi and Yumemakura Baku. This is another of Taniguchi's wilderness manga, similar in themes and settings to The Ice Wanderer and Quest for the Missing Girl (though that was admittedly more of a standard mystery/thriller with mountain climbing extras). I haven't cared for a lot of the recent Taniguchi stuff Fanfare has been translating -- he's a stellar craftsman but the stories themselves are rather tepid, middlebrow affairs, but I found myself engrossed in Summit's tale. It starts out about a photographer who thinks he may have found Sir Edmund Hillary's lost camera, but then the plot turns 90 degrees to tell the story of this young, rather brusque climber, who is determined to make a name for himself and brave the most treacherous peaks regardless of work, friends or manners. It doesn't sound like the most fascinating tale, I know, but Taniguchi and Baku managed to weave an engrossing tale, enough so that I'm eager for Vol. 2.
Michael May: Outlaw Entertainment's WE THE PEOPLE is about the descendants of Sinbad, Zorro, and Robin Hood banding together to fight injustice in the modern world. I'd hoped it would be something along the lines of MAGE with the heroes coming to terms with their identities and exploring what those characters meant to the world, but unfortunately it's generic superhero stuff without the superpowers.
Unless you count "destiny" as a superpower, I guess. That's the only explanation for the heroes' getting together and Robyn's knowing how to shoot an arrow without ever having picked up a bow. But destiny isn't even used in an interesting way. It's a cheat to get the characters where they need to be and into costume and then it's discarded. Other than that, this could be about any three people taking up arms against a cartoonish, unbelievably corrupt government. Very disappointing.
[caption id="attachment_232" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Acme Novelty Library #19"]
Shaenon Garrity: I just finished Acme Novelty Library #19. I know it came out a year ago, but it's not like I've missed any other Acme Novelty Libraries in the interim. Anyway, it's pretty good. It's about Fisher-Price people who are sad. This time they're sad IN SPACE. So, yeah, good if you like being sad.
What else? I got the new two-volume hardcover collection of Humbug for Christmas. I love Harvey Kurtzman's failed magazine projects. They don't quite succeed at what they're trying to do, but they're trying hard, and the contributors are absurdly gifted artists. Kurtzman never had much success in all his long career, but he had a talent for making smart people want to give him a hand. Humbug is the magazine Kurtzman set up as a collective project, with revenues to be split between the contributors, and when there were no revenues everyone lost a ton of money on it. Except Jack Davis, who demanded payment up front. Smart guy. Anyway, fun stuff. It's got a lot of work by Arnold Roth, whom I love.
I'm following a bunch of Viz's SigIkki titles, on the website and in print. Children of the Sea is great; somehow the art captures the damp chill of a northern seaside, and the characters look appropriately wrung-out. Both the Natsume Ono titles, not simple and House of Five Leaves, are fascinating, not in the least for how different they are from each other. I'm looking forward to the print edition of Tokyo Flow Chart, possibly the least-loved title in the sigikki.com lineup. I'm sorry, I think it's funny. It reminds me of Jason Shiga's work, only loose and rambling.
Oh, and I reread Understanding Comics over the holidays. What most struck me this time is that cartoon Scott McCloud smiles a LOT. He does all the smiling for the people in Acme Novelty Library.