What Are You Reading? with Alex Zalben

Hello and welcome to What Are You Reading? Our special guest this week is Alex Zalben, who blogs about comics for MTV Geek and has written a few himself--including the webcomic Detective Honeybear.

To see what Alex and the Robot 6 crew have been reading lately, click below.


Michael May

I had a busy reading week. I explored David Nytra’s short The Secret of the Stone Frog, a lovely coming-of-age story that’s sort of a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Or to be clearer: it’s Alice in Wonderland if Lewis Carroll was dealing with J.M. Barrie’s themes. Nytra creates a wonderful world for his two main characters to discover, filled with giant rabbits, foppish lions (dandy lions, maybe?), talking buildings, and a subway station for deep-sea creatures. I can’t recommend it highly enough for fans of Carroll or just great children’s comics in general.

I finally read Mike Mignola and Troy Nixey’s Jenny Finn: Doom Messiah. I need to mention Farel Dalrymple too since he draws the fourth chapter, but it really feels like Mignola and Nixey’s baby, and maybe more Nixey’s than Mignola’s. The horror has a definite Mignola feel and pacing to it, but Nixey’s listed as a co-writer as well as the artist for the first three chapters, and it’s his sketches that fill up the last part of the book. I know what kind of compliment I’m paying when I say that Nixey’s art is even creepier than Mignola’s. Jenny Finn is one disturbing book and perfectly Lovecraftian without ever having to reference Lovecraft directly.

Another disquieting thing I read this week was Ed Brisson’s Murder Book series. Full disclosure: Ed letters the Kill All Monsters comic I write and KAM artist Jason Copland drew one of the stories in Murder Book #3. But while I’m partial to the creators, I’m being honest when I admit that Murder Book is a perfect example of why I read crime comics in small doses. Each issue contains two stories in which Ed and two artists present perfectly plausible, but fantastically compelling murders. There’s no mystery to solve, there’s only the crimes themselves. That Ed can do this for six stories without repeating himself or letting the concept grow stale is unbelievable, but he does it. He does it though by creating characters that are the absolute dregs of humanity and it’s not a light-hearted read. Because it’s so real, it’s easily the most horrifying thing I’ve read this week, and probably this decade.

I also caught up with The New Deadwardians and wow, is it good. I think I’ve said before that I was on the fence about trying it. My fondness for Dan Abnett and I.N.J. Culbard’s previous work was offset by my complete apathy toward vampires and zombies. I think it was Kelly Thompson on the 3 Chicks podcast though who compared it to Downton Abbey and pushed me over into trying it out. I’m glad she did. Much more than its high concept, The New Deadwardians is a fascinating murder mystery with great characters and high stakes (no pun intended) for solving the case. And yes, there’s plenty of Downton-like social commentary going on as well. I’m sorry there are only three issues left.

Resident Alien #3 wrapped up the first mini-series in Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse’s concept of a mystery-solving alien living undercover in a small town. As much as I love that concept, the solution to the mystery wasn’t as exciting as I hoped. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it, but it’s not memorable and the killer’s motivations seemed weak to me. Maybe if I went back and re-read it in one sitting I’d feel differently. I like the main characters enough though that I’m interested in returning for the second mini-series. I just hope that the mystery is stronger in it.

Speaking of returning to things, I went back to Daisuke Igarashi’s Children of the Sea this week with Volume 2. My original plan was to buy and read it a volume at a time as long as my interest held, but halfway through this one I went ahead and ordered the last two. Igarashi’s stunning nature drawings would be reason enough to want more, even if there wasn’t also a great mystery about disappearing sea life and the origin of a group of kids who have a strange connection with the ocean. It’s great comics made sweeter by the relatively small number of volumes. I don’t feel like I’m making a huge investment and there’s the promise of a complete story by the time I’m done.

Chris Mautner

I want to strongly second Michael's recommendation for The Secret of the Stone Frog. This thing's a real charmer. I've never seen Nyrtra's work before -- apparently this is his first book -- but I find his art really striking -- lots of little etching-like, detailed little lines that harken back to 19th century illustrators like John Tenniel (actually his art reminds me a lot of Tony Millionaire too). It reaches a point of near-obsession at times -- Nytra seems to have an abhorrence for white space and there are a few panels where my eye wished it had a place to rest, but that caveat aside, this is a really nice debut, offering just enough menace to keep from being saccharine, but not so much as to terrify its intended audience. And it's further proof (along with the Shark King) that Toon Books is becoming a publisher to be reckoned with, regardless of their intended audience.

Face Man by Clara Bessijelle -- This is a surreal, dreamlike comic from Domino Press, about a man who goes to see a play and finds himself being followed, his own identity eventually coming into question. Bessijelle mimics the shifting nature of dreams rather well. I especially like the sequence where the man finds himself at a party full of strangers that nevertheless seem to know him; that the sort of odd anxiety you can see creeping around in someone's subconscious. Unfortunately the book doesn't end so much as stop. I don't know if there's a second chapter plan -- I'm assuming not -- but I would have liked the book more if it had something resembling a definitive conclusion.

Action Comics Vol. 1: Superman and the Men of Steel by Grant Morrison, Rags Morales, and others -- I gotta say, I'm not feelin' this. At all. I'm normally very forgiving where Morrison's concerned, but this is easily his most lackluster work to date. It's not that it's as bad as, say, The Mystery Play or Supergods, but rather that it's kind of dull and muddled, as though Morrison couldn't be bothered to offer much more than a few characters sketches and a bare bones outline. It's thin gruel honestly. Morrison's done a lot of work for hire stuff in the past, but this is the first thing of his I've read that's felt like work for hire.

Brigid Alverson

A few years ago, Matt Dembicki edited an anthology of Native American trickster tales, called, appropriately, Trickster. Now he has edited another book in a similar format but on a very different subject: District Comics, a collection of short comics about little-known episodes in the history of Washington, DC. In other words, a book designed specifically for me, because I love little-known bits of history. The stories are in roughly chronological order and start back when the city was just an idea in a few peoples' heads and some land bought up by speculators. The styles vary, but there are plenty of surprises here, and it's a solid read.

Matt has another new book on the shelves: Xoc: The Journey of a Great White. This is a really different sort of nature book. As the title suggests, it follows a great white shark as it migrates to the waters off Hawaii to give birth. There's a bit of anthropomorphization here‹the shark befriends a giant turtle, and as they travel together, they develop a bit of a relationship‹but it is a startlingly unsentimental look at ocean life and the impact humans are having on it. The art is beautiful, and colorist Evan Keeling has done a beautiful job of conveying the subtle light and shade of the deep ocean.

The Year of the Beasts, by Cecil Castellucci and Nate Powell, is a young-adult novel with chapters that alternate between prose and comics. The prose chapters are a straightforward story about a teenage girl struggling with her feelings after her younger sister ends up with the boy she likes‹and with her best friend, and what seems to be the lion's share of her parents' attention. The story is beautifully told, and Castellucci really puts flesh on her characters' bones before turning it all upside down with a shocking denouement. The comics chapters share the characters and setting of the prose sections but seem to have a totally different story; in these, the main character has turned into Medusa, and everyone who looks at her turns to stone. The two stories converge neatly in the end. It's a tricky balancing act, but Castellucci and Powell pull it off neatly.

Mark Kardwell

It's no secret that I paid for Kardwell Towers by selling out of print comics on Ebay a few years back.  This week I've mainly been enjoying a rogue stack of Epic (literally, as well as y'know, the publisher) Charlier/Giraud Blueberry albums (Ballad For A Coffin, Angel Face, The Ghost Tribe)  that got left behind in the attic, and some duplicates I kept of the two Harvill Press Corto Maltese translations (Ballad of The Salt Sea, The Celts) because I couldn't bear to part with them. And it's best not to dwell on how ill-served Hugo Pratt's work has been by anglophone publishers.  A conversation I had online with a old blogging chum also sent me up into the roofspace to dig out my copy of the Vertigo album The Fountain by Darren Aronofsky and Kent Williams, an alternate-universe adaptation of a screenplay that sort-of never existed that has somehow materialized on our plane of existence.  I brought my scrappy mis-printed hardback of Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden's Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, home too, but I still have found myself unable to read the prose, as each time I try I just keep flicking through the book to stare at Mignola's illustrations of skulls, rooftops, gravestones, etc.

Alex Zalben

Batman: No Man’s Land #1 - I’m seeing Dark Knight Rises for the second time this weekend, so I thought I’d revisit some of the books that inspired it, first. Dark Knight Returns, of course, but reading this one shot in particular it really struck me how much Nolan took from this storyline for the third (fifth?) act of Rises. It also bums me out that we didn’t have Barbara Gordon/Oracle in the movie, since she’s such a fantastic character in the book. If all ‘90s crossovers are this good, it’s probably time to dust off my copies of The Vibranium Vendetta! Or maybe not.

Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism - I’m not sure this counts as a comic, since it’s not, you know, a comic. But the forthcoming novella by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden (with illustrations by Mignola) is a fun, scary little story about possibly evil puppets in a orphanage after World War II. All right in the author’s wheelhouses, and even though it’s short on pages, isn’t short on ideas. That’ll be out in October, and would make a great gift for Neil Gaiman’s All Hallow’s Read holiday.

Animal Man #11/Swamp Thing #11 - The Prologue to Rotworld is a fantastic intro to the epic adventure Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire are about to send the Avatars of the Red and Green on starting in two months. The supporting cast is fantastic in both comics - it’s a real thrill to see them start to interact - and the art complements itself excellently from Animal Man to Swamp Thing. I’ve been looking forward to this crossover since, pretty much, the first issue of each title, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

Hawkeye #1 - I’ve never been a huge fan of Clint Barton, but Matt Fraction and David Aja have made me a huge fan of their comic. The best intro issue to a superhero comic since Daredevil #1, and once I was finished, I got the same tingle of joy in the pit of my stomach I had when I finished Waid’s take on old hornhead. Between this, Daredevil, Punisher, and Spider-Man, Steve Wacker has made the streets of NYC in the Marvel U home to the best writers and artists working in comics today. Also: it was very funny.

20th Century Boys, Vol. 21 - I’m actually NOT reading this, as I have yet to get to the store to pick it up yet. But oh man, once I do: I am going to read it, with my eyes I bet. Currently my favorite manga series, 20CBs (which no one calls it) is heading to some sort of apocalyptic close, and the last two volumes were doozies. Urasawa’s storytelling is superb, and though there’s a LOT of characters, he always keeps the action moving. Okay, I’m going to the store now.

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