What Are You Reading? with Austin English

Welcome to What Are You Reading?, our weekly rundown of what comics and other stuff we've been checking out recently. Today our special guest is cartoonist Austin English, creator of the graphic novel Christina and Charles and publisher of Domino Books.

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

Michael May

I’m finally digging into some comics I picked up at C2E2, starting with Ryan Kelly’s Funrama #2. You guys, it’s so cool. Funrama #1 felt like a goofy riff on Chris Claremont-era X-Men comics so that Kelly could scratch an itch and do something light-hearted and different from his usual, Vertigo-type work. That’s so not a bad thing, please don’t misunderstand me, but this second issue, though still weird and entertaining, gets deeper and hints at even further depths for Kelly to explore in future issues. It’s obviously still a way for Kelly to blow off some fun steam, but the main character – a high school superheroine named Raccoon – feels more real than the first issue’s Mutant Punks. It’s also surprising that he explains the name of the comic by using it in the story. I won’t spoil how, but it was a revelation to discover that Funrama is more than just a generic name for what I thought was going to be an anthology of loosely connected stories. Kelly’s doing some real world-building and even though he’s obviously having a great time doing it, he’s also building in some sinister elements that will pay off later. I highly recommend tracking him down at a convention for these or ordering them through his website.

I also read Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov’s Fury MAX #1, but that was much less fun. I was all set for a great, no-holds-barred, Cold War adventure, but mostly it’s just Nick Fury looking grumpy while reluctantly helping France defend its interests in Indochina by… well, having a lot of meetings, apparently. The supporting cast is more interesting than Fury, but I’m not dedicating $4 an issue to reading about those guys. Not even if Nick Fury gets to say the F-word.

Finally, I re-read the first volume of Daisuke Igarashi’s Children of the Sea. I’m getting ready to continue the series and wanted to remind myself of the story. What I really reminded myself of though is how gorgeous and evocative the artwork is. There are lots of great pages and panels, but one in particular still haunts me with its power to communicate the awe and fear that come with swimming in incredibly deep water. Can’t wait to dive into the rest.

Chris Mautner

Animal Man Vol. 1: The Hunt -- I really liked the first issue of this series, so I was quite disappointed to find it didn't really deliver on that initial promise. The menace and weirdness hinted at in the first chapter turns into a rote "evil supernatural force seeks to destroy everything" plot, complete with a "young child is the only one that can save us from oblivion." It's a very old, rote plot, and writer Jeff Lemire doesn't really do anything to bring a fresh spin on it, apart from the gore (and this may well be the goriest book in DC's stable right now, which is saying something). Indeed, even the dialogue between Animal Man and his daughter seems off at times. The only real saving grace here is artist Travel Forman, whose angular, clean style really serves the grotesque horror aspect of this story well. Unfortunately, I understand he's leaving the book, and with him, so goes my interest in it.

Wonder Woman Vol. 1: Blood -- Is it just me or does Wonder Woman seem like a supporting character in her own book? As though Azzarello, like so many other writers down the line, can't quite figure out what to do with her, or perhaps he just had a story about the Greek gods he's been wanting to use for a long time and this was his big opportunity. Whatever the case, and despite the complete reversals of her mythology and various battle scenes, she doesn't seem to come to life here, the interest clearly seems to be on the various gods and the lady pregnant with Zeus' baby. This is far from sloppy work -- Azzarello's a decent writer and Chiang is an excellent artist, and god knows it's better than just about any other WW book I've read in the past 15 years -- but all the same, I felt myself fighting to stay interested in what happened to any of these characters. Also: Why doesn't the pregnant lady just terminate the pregnancy? I realize it opens a whole political and ethical kettle of fish to even pose the question, but still, c'mon.

J. Caleb Mozzocco

Two Wednesdays have passed since I last contributed to this feature, which means I’ve picked up two handfuls of new, single-issue format comic books from the local comic shop, which I reviewed here and here.

Thanks to Marvel’s accelerated publishing schedule, it seems like half of such books I read now are new issues of Daredevil.

Speaking of comics I read but reviewed elsewhere, I finally caught up with the Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors collection, which includes the first seven issues of DC’s short-lived, $4 Guy Gardner series, the one with the blood-puke cover (It’s full of rather amazing, I-can’t-believe-they-actually-published-that scenes, including a climactic puke duel, in which the burning blood-puking heroes take on a villain who pukes live snakes), and I finally finished Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles of The Holy City, which is maybe Delisle’s best work to date, partly because of how his skills as an observer and cartoonist continue to sharpen and strengthen, and partly because of the subject matter (And if you’ve ever read any of Delisle’s previous “chronicles” work, you know what a big deal it is if this is his best work to date, since his worst work to date has been so great).

I also read Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham’s phenomenal Level Up, and felt kind of mad at myself for having waited so long to read it—it’s a rather amazing coming of age (repeatedly!) tale with a particularly peculiar premise that Yang and Pham manage to pull off beautifully. Pham’s artwork is really something to see here, featuring a simple, homemade look —dabbed-on water color, shaky panel borders, visible pencil lines, the texture of the paper the original art was produced on reproduced in the finished product—that belies the craft and attention to detail its conveying.

I hope someone very smart is currently writing a book about the literary work coming out of the first generation to have grown up with video games that directly alludes to that body of shared experience, as there seems to be a lot of it, in both comics and prose. This is, of course, another example.

And check out that cover design: when you hold the book in your hands, it actually looks like you can play the cover. I’m not ashamed to admit I tapped those buttons for a few minutes before and after reading.

Saving the best for last, this week I also read Michael Rabagliati’s Paul Has A Summer Job, one of the cartoonists semi-semiautobiographical graphic novels about his protagonist Paul. This one chronicles Paul’s summer as a counselor at a camp for disadvantanged children. Rabagliati is one of the best there is when it comes to moving a pen across paper. The very basic, very simple task of making a black line on white space is something he does so well that each and every individual panel is a work of art in and of itself. If you wanted to spend hours and hours cutting this book apart with a pair of scissors, and rearranging all the panels at random, it would still be a beauty to behold.

That said, the story all those beautifully chosen and executed lines are in service of is a great one, alternately funny and poignant in the way one’s own memories of one’s own eighteenth (and/or seventeenth and/or nineteenth or twentieth) summers are. The ending, in which we check in with Paul 20 years or so later than the events that occupythe bulk of the book, totally broke my heart. In a good way.

It’s not often I read a comic book that makes me tear up at the end. At least, it’s not often enough.

Oh, and I also read Neon Genesis Evangelion: Campus Apocalypse Vol. 2 by Ming Ming, but I’m afraid it was no damn good. I like the premise of this series, which basically just removes the giant robots and mysterious alien angels from the original Evangelion story, and has the protagonists all attending the same Japanese school, now facing off against angels who possess the bodies of teenagers in hand-to-hand combat. It’s smaller in scale, and gives a reader an opportunity to hang out with the characters in a different context, one that allows for more time spent with those characters.

But it is, surprisingly, deadly dull. I thought I’d try this second volume to see if the series grew on me, but aside form the funny first chapter—in which the kids perform a Christmas pageant, with Asuka as the Virgin Mary and Rei going method in order to play a horse—its mainly devoted to Shinji dithering over the things Shinji dithered over in the other, previous versions of the story.

Tom Bondurant

This week I finished the I ... Vampire! paperback, which collected the feature's original run in House Of Mystery plus a Batman team-up from Brave and the Bold. Writer J.M. DeMatteis is credited as Andrew Bennett's creator, but he only wrote a handful of these stories before Bruce Jones and then Dan Mishkin & Gary Cohn succeeded him. Artist Tom Sutton's contributions tie everything together, since he pencilled and/or inked most of the stories. Regardless, there's no real authorial vision, and not much sense of an overarching storyline beyond Andrew's quest to defeat his ex-lover Mary and her Blood Red Moon organization. That's disappointing, but the stories themselves are pretty decent. Andrew fights racist politicians, travels in time, and (in one of the series' harder-to-swallow mini-arcs) learns the truth behind a new cancer vaccine. (Whenever I write the history of Earth-One, I will be sure to include those few months when cancer was apparently cured.) Actually, one of the hardest things about reading this book was the knowledge of Andrew's future I learned in one of DeMatteis' later series, the late-'80s incarnation of Dr. Fate. It didn't really spoil things for me, but it sure made Andrew's history that much more complicated.

Next, not really comics, but close: reading 2005's Star Wars Poster Book (by Peter Vilmur and Steven Sansweet), I was pleasantly surprised to learn another comics artist contributed to the first film's early marketing. We all know about Howard Chaykin's Comic-Con poster, but I did not know that Nick Cardy was brought in to touch up Tom Jung's one-sheet. Among other things, Cardy added the droids to the iconic Luke-and-Leia-on-the-hillside image. I will literally never look at that poster the same way again.

Finally, I read the first collection of Roger Langridge's Snarked! and enjoyed it greatly. I'm more familiar with his Muppet Show comics, so to me Snarked! has a slightly different rhythm, which took some getting used to. Past that point, though -- and past the Gryphon's superficial resemblance to Sam the Eagle -- it was quite fun. I was expecting it to be a more complete story, but that just means I'm eager for more.

Brigid Alverson

I'm writing this aboard Amtrak's California Zephyr, on a cross-country trip from San Francisco to Boston. My reading for the trip is Henry Kisor's Zephyr, which is all about this train. Being a reporter, Kisor got to go behind the scenes with the crew and even ride with the engineer in the locomotive; he also talks about the history of trains, the history of this particular train route, and the places it goes through. The book was originally written in the 1990s, but I picked up the Kindle edition, which has photos and an updated afterword. Because, yes, I'm not just a comics nerd, I'm a train nerd too.

I'm going to be on a panel at BEA about hot graphic novels for the summer and fall, so I have loaded up my iPad with digital review copies and my knapsack with galley. The one that led all the rest is Raina Telgemeier's Drama, a followup to her successful YA graphic novel Smile. This isn't a sequel, but it's in the same spirit, with a more sophisticated story. Telgemeier follows a group of middle-school students as they produce their school musical. The title has an obvious double meaning, as the story follows the romantic entanglements of the cast and crew, especially Callie, the lead character and the set designer for the show. Telgemeier has a good feel for situations and dialogue, and she includes both straight and gay characters in a matter-of-fact way that feels genuine. In terms of storytelling and technique, this is a more sophisticated book than Smile, and I hope it finds its audience as Smile did.

Austin English

This is a rich book---to use a cliched phrase, it rewards rereading. The imagery is personal but not in a confessional way or in a style that is meant to bond the reader with the author. When I look at William Blake's books, I feel uncomfortable because the imagery is so intensely felt and so alien. Something personal is communicated in those books, but not in a language I understand entirely. That makes them supreme works of art (to me). It's on the reader to develop themselves to understand the intensity of what is happening. I'm not comparing Duke and His Army to Blake (that would be a silly and damning comparison for ANY book), but it does start scratching on that door of expression. There are patterns, sequences and anger here ('You're a hopeless woman, or are you in fact a woman? No, you're to ugly and lack the discipline to be a man") that is so strong but also so obscure. You understand it with some fraction of your emotional vocabulary and the rest you feel strongly impressed by.

I first found Petersen's work in the Nog a Dod anthology edited by Marc Bell. It immediately stood out to be for its straightforward, stark qualities. But for Petersen, stark doesn't mean conservative. There's a real adventurous quality to the drawing---Petersen has a style but he approaches each drawing with fresh hand and eyes. Drawings are filled with hatching that Petersen uses expressively---his hatching doesn't make something fade into the background. You get a little bit of comfort/fear/creative exhilaration from his densely hatched structures.

The story here unfolds in such a strange way. There is this basic quality to the plot--two friends in a new town. The characters speak in a way that is both funny and unsettling for their meat and potatoes style. 'Here's the shop for me, I like its best!' I don't agree/disagree with their statements and I don't feel close or distant from them. Their situation feels equal parts funny and terrifying, a strong effect that Petersen achieves by being both casual and fiercely anti-casual all in the same line. 'Here you are' 'Thanks' 'Lets go!'

This comic really excited me when I read it. Westvind has made a lot of comics, and I'd never read any of them until a few weeks ago. They are all very good, but this was my favorite. There's a moment toward the end where a character begins pounding a car with her fists. The drawing gets so rubbery and then so muscular. Something about that combination hits this pleasure section in my brain so definitively. It's like watching someone stand in front of you while their flesh melts AND gets electrocuted at the same time---somehow, their basic physical structure retains. That's how Westvinds characters feel to me. Westvind includes a single drawing of a face on the last page that almost feels like her artistic manifesto: a stretched out grin, smooshed and lively, covered in zipatone.

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