What Are You Reading? with Ben Towle

Hello and welcome to What Are You Reading?, where the Robot 6 crew talks about the death of ... oh, wait, we already did that. In fact, nobody brought up [REDACTED] in their write-up this week. But they did talk about a bunch of other comics.

Our guest this week is cartoonist and teacher Ben Towle, creator of Oyster War, Midnight Sun, Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean and much more. Check out his website for all kinds of fun art and pin-ups (Alien Legion!).

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


Michael May

Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and Nate Powell's The Silence of Our Friends is a touching, powerful memoir of Long's experiences growing up in Houston, Texas during the hottest part of the Civil Rights struggle. It does a great job of creating the atmosphere of fear and hate in which the main characters have to navigate. There are heroes on both sides of the racial line; people willing to reach across that line to stand together under impossible circumstances. It's a tough story, but ultimately an encouraging one.

It's not encouraging in the exact way I wanted it to be though. The title of the book comes from the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." That's a potent, challenging thing to say and I wish I struggled with it harder than I do. I came to The Silence of Our Friends wanting to read about someone else's struggle with those words. I wanted to see some silence; some failure that would stick with me and help spur me to action in times when I'm tempted to remain neutral. That's not Jack Long.

Jack Long is an example of speaking up. The comic never makes it look easy, but Jack seems to come by it more naturally than I do. It could be because that's how Jack Long really was, or it could be because that's how his son Mark sees him, but as a character in a story, doing the right thing seems to come more easily for him than it does for me and I wish it didn't. That's my problem, not the story's, but it limited the impact that the book might have otherwise had on me.

Tom Bondurant

This week's Aquaman #17 (written by Geoff Johns, pencilled by Paul Pelletier, inked by Sean Parsons) is called a "Throne of Atlantis Epilogue," but it's a decent standalone issue too. Basically, it's Aquaman trying to do the right thing as King of Atlantis (and, by extension, the Seven Seas) and making no one happy. The Atlantean soldiers who help him fight whalers don't respect him, the eco-activist Sea Devils lost two members during the Atlantis war, and Amanda Waller just keeps giving him bad news. On the bright side, the creatures of the deep seem satisfied, so there's that. Pelletier and Parsons, with Rod Reis on colors, have slid into Ivan Reis' and Joe Prado's shoes pretty effectively, and the book looks about as good as it ever did. No doubt Johns is setting up the next big storyline, but I almost think he's better in these shorter stories.

I also bought the Superman Vs. Shazam! paperback, collecting the team-ups from 30-35 years ago. Most of the book is written by either Gerry Conway or Roy Thomas (or both), and most of it's pencilled by Rich Buckler, all stalwarts of the period. There's good and bad in that, naturally -- the villain of the first story is rather forgettable, and he even doubts Mary Marvel and Supergirl because, you know, women -- but it's all entertaining. Gil Kane draws a DC Comics Presents Annual where Sivana intercepts the magic lightning and gets a green Marvel costume. Mr. Mxyzptlk engineers a power-swap, abetted by a couple of the Monster Society of Evil. There's also a somewhat-confusing story apparently introducing the Billy Batson of Earth-One, but apart from trying to figure out what DC might have done with him, it facilitates some nice wish-fulfillment moments. Supes and Cap have a great working relationship throughout the book, so it's just fun all the way around.

Also great fun was FF #4, Matt Fraction and Mike Allred's madcap tale of She-Hulk's date with Wyatt Wingfoot and the misguided youth who try to co-opt it. I won't say much more, because that should be enough.

J. Caleb Mozzocco

This week I only read a handful of new comic book-comics, almost exclusively from Marvel, much to my own surprise (When it came to superheroes, I grew up reading DC and shunning Marvel). Marvel has really assembled some pretty killer creative teams and paired them with their ideal characters and premises of late.

Beyond that handful, I read a trio of comics-with-spines worth mentioning here.

Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking: This is a Toon Book by Philippe Coudray and, like most of the line, it’s such a great piece of comics-making that no comics-lover should be turned off by the suggested demographic (grades 1 to 2).

It’s a collection of 27 one-page gag strips, each featuring the titular bear and a recurring cast of woodland creatures. The gags are witty, inspired and highly visual, and drawn in a style that suggests old-school newspaper funnies, only in full color, and stacked up vertically on the page.

Honest to God, I laughed aloud more reading this book than I have at any point since…I don’t know, when did the last volume of Dungeon Quest come out? And the strip on page 17, in which Benjamin helps his rabbit friend jump across a ravine? That one wasn’t funny, but man did I marvel at its choreography. If you don’t know any kids you can buy this for and read with, be sure to heck your local library so you can read it for yourself.

Goliath: This Tom Gauld graphic novel from last year tells the story of one of the Bible’s most famous confrontations from the point-of-view of the loser, who, in retrospect, seems to be the real underdog in the confrontation.

Gauld takes language straight from the Bible, and then fills in the blanks between the well-known bits of the story, introducing us to a very big Philistine who is more of an administrator than a warrior, one who is a little embarrassed by his great size, but duty-bound to follow orders.

These orders are part of a scheme to intimidate the Israelites into defeat, and it doesn’t work at all. Gauld presents the famous confrontation as a mundane, quixotic waiting game that ends quite suddenly and violently when a little kid comes walking out of the mists one morning and beans the protagonist with a stone.

Gauld’s super-simplified artwork fits the stripped-down language of the Bible perfectly, and is full of fun, funny little cartoon details, like Goliath’s little kids shield bearer, who is barely big enough to lift the shield, and the rendering of the Hebrew language to Philistine ears as a bunch of line scattered like sticks in a word balloon.

The Great Showdowns: You’re probably all familiar with cartoonist, artist and illustrator Scott C.’s Great Showdowns series already, right?

In which he paints two opposing forces from movies facing off against one another, usually while smiling their cute little Scott C. smiles at one another? (They work best when one half of the conflict is an inanimate object, I think, as then Scott gives them little faces and stick arms and legs, like the shards of broken glass that await Bruce Willis from the first and least embarrassing Die Hard movie).

Well, Titan Books collected a mess of them into a book. It is a fun book, although not the most economical way of enjoying the series, as you can find so many of them on the Internet, where looking at them doesn’t cost any money at all (Although, if you borrow this book from the library, it doesn’t cost you any money at all, either).

One benefit of the book, however, is Scott Campbell’s wonderful introduction, which I actually enjoyed as much as any single image in the book. I do kind of wish there was a glossary though, as even though many of these showdowns are truly great (and thus anyone who has seen very many movies will recognize most of them), there were a few I didn’t “get.”

There are a few extra comic book-y showdowns in the book too: Hit-Girl vs. All Those Badguys from the climax of Kick-Ass and Michael Cera vs. The Seven Deadly Exes from the Scott Pilgrim movie.

You know what I would have liked even more than a book version of Campbell’s series though? Trading cards. Think about it, Scott!

Brigid Alverson

I have dipped in and out of this before, but this week I picked up the Kickstarter-funded anthology Digestate and started reading it from cover to cover. This approach brings out the twin weaknesses of the anthology format: Some of the stories (inevitably) are bad, and the good ones leave me wanting more. The book starts off strong with the French cartoonist Cha's terrifying rendition of The Three Little Pigs, set on a factory farm; the story is repulsive, but Cha has a wonderful cartoony style that makes it entertaining anyway. I could read a whole book of that. Pieces by Renee French, Box Brown and James Kochalka, among others, make for a distinguished selection, and the strongest stories are the ones that engage the subject matter most directly, rather than grafting food imagery onto some other story. Many of the stories are meditations on meat and meat-eating, and the book has a strong pro-vegetarian slant. Editor JT Yost's interview with a former John Morrill employee about the dangers of being a hog sticker is particularly disturbing. Overall, as anthologies go, the ratio of good stuff to bad stuff makes this book well worth picking up; the majority of the stories are well done, and a number of them are quite compelling.

I started Francesco Francavilla's Black Beetle series with the #0 issue, which is a mini-novella, then picked up issue #1 as well. This is superhero noir, and I loved the dark-toned art, reminiscent of pulp fiction covers, and the overall look of the stories. Since this is my first introduction to the Black Beetle, I could use a little more backstory -- I'm not sure what his deal is, exactly -- but nonetheless it's fun to watch him in action. Issue #0 was a (sort of) self-contained story about Nazis chasing after a lizard amulet, while issue #1 kicks off a four-story arc about a mysterious bomber who is knocking off criminals before the Black Beetle can get to them. Francavilla avoids the pitfalls that turn me off most superhero comics -- too much text, excessive detail, and blank-eyed women -- and produces a comic that is really fun to read. His pacing and paneling are perfect, and his palette of dark reds and golds, with liberal use of black, really suits the era and the subject matter. This one's a keeper.

Ben Towle

I’m about halfway through The Initiates: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs by Étienne Davodeau. Just like it says in the title, this recently translated/published French comic from NBM documents a real-life event in which two friends--one a cartoonist and one a winemaker--agree to introduce the other to his craft. The cartoonist learns winemaking and the winemaker learns about the French comics industry. There are a few “guest appearances” by folks like Louis Trondheim and Emmanuel Guibert who both figure in the story and contribute artwork. Davodeau’s artwork didn’t blow me away initially, but I’m starting to really appreciate some of the interesting stuff he does with ink wash, a medium you don’t see used much in comics.

I received the beautiful two volume VIZ hardcover set of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and have been reading it in fits and starts ever since then. It’s pretty amazing stuff--and really, really dense. It’s as long page-wise as a modern manga series, but it’s paced almost like a 70s American superhero comic. Every page is packed with story...and with just beautiful artwork that you can actually see and appreciate at the book’s generous 8” x 10”-ish trim size.

Science fiction comics are experiencing a bit of a revival at the moment. The big title here of is Prophet (which I adore), but there’s some great science fiction-y stuff going on in indie/minicomics scene as well. I just finished reading the second installment of Ryan Cecil Smith’s minicomics series SF. It’s a real blast. His work sometimes appears alongside the young post-Fort Thunder ironic/pop culture-riffing cartoonists, but SF is straight-up fun science fiction adventure comics in the tradition of Matsumoto Leiji.

Like a lot of folks, I thought that recently-teased Brian Wood/Olivier Coipel X-Men stuff looked great and the lineup of the all-female team has some great possibilities. It’s not out until April, but in the meantime, a friend lent me Wood’s X-Men run from 2012. So far it’s a hoot. He totally gets that with the “X-Men sundae,” the character interactions are the ice cream and the beating up bad guys is the cherry on top. Colossus can be duking it out with some giant monster down below, but most of the story will be Storm and Pixie yacking about stuff overhead in a plane.

It’s only a few pages in at the moment, but so far Brittney Sabo’s new webcomic, All Night, is a thing of beauty. She drew the 2010 Xeric-winning Francis Sharp in the Grip of the Uncanny! which I absolutely loved, but I’d not seen anything new by her since then. The story’s just getting rolling, so who knows where that’s gonna go, but the cartooning--and particularly the coloring--is just gorgeous.

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