What Are You Reading? with Jessica Campbell

Happy Earth Day and welcome to What Are You Reading? Today our guest is Jessica Campbell, design manager for Drawn and Quarterly as well as a painter.

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

Tom Bondurant

I thought Batman #8 (written by Scott Snyder, drawn by Greg Capullo) was a decent start to "Night of the Owls," but it did more to set the general mood than to advance the plot. Of course, if the plot is just going to be a lot of Owl-fightin', played out in twenty-page installments, this was as good a representation as any. Specifically, Capullo established the geography of the Wayne Manor and Batcave settings pretty well, grounding the action in well-defined spaces. That may sound somewhat basic, but I liked being able to picture Bruce and Alfred struggling to secure their stronghold against the enemy hordes. Similarly, I liked that Capullo made Wayne Tower so prominent in his Gotham-skyline backgrounds. Again, it's a little thing, but Batman's surroundings have been subject to so much artistic interpretation over the years that it's good to see some consistency. It also reinforces Snyder's larger theme that Gotham itself is "out to get" Batman ... which I suppose makes the Gotham skyline a little more ominous.

The lead feature in this month's Batman Beyond Unlimited was "Superman Beyond," written by J.T. Krul, pencilled by Howard Porter, and inked by Livesay. Basically it's an introduction to the future's lonely Superman, although at this point in comics history "lonely Superman" has become something of a cliche. Among other places, we've seen him in Kingdom Come, Kamandi: At Earth's End (and its Superman-centric sequel), and in John Byrne's Generations miniseries. He's lost his Earthly family, including his wife, and he keeps up his heroic activities under a gray cloud of emo. This story's opening pages, set in an artifact-cluttered Fortress of Solitude which includes the last paper edition of the Daily Planet and the Planet globe itself, aren't much different. Livesay's inks don't work especially well with Porter's pencils either, dulling their slick lines and creating a certain inappropriate puffiness. The story's main revelation is somewhat intriguing, despite being nothing really new for a "next-generation" tale.

However, BBU #3's other features fare better. It's so great to have Norm Breyfogle back on a Bat-book, even if it's not the original Batman, because his style gives Terry McGinniss the same fluidity and lithe grace that Breyfogle's Bruce had. Adam Beechen's story is good serial fare too, bouncing from eccentric mobsters to Terry's social circle and back, with a hint of betrayal lurking as well. The Justice League story (written and penciled by Dustin Nguyen, inked by Derek Fridolfs) also made me happy, in no small part because it referenced Mark Waid, George Perez, and Jerry Ordway's extra-fine Brave and the Bold work. The story itself was entertaining too, continuing the JLU's attempts to bring down Kobra.

Finally, Dynamite's new The Shadow #1 (written by Garth Ennis, drawn by Aaron Campbell) was a very good reintroduction, although having the precognitive Shadow as narrator made the time frame a little hard to determine. Other than that, the lead is even more of a pompous jerk than fellow icons (and points of comparison) Batman or Sherlock Holmes. That's actually kind of refreshing, since it distinguishes both the character and his 1930s setting. He's not a cocky, Chaykinesque jerk either, which again is a nice distinction. Instead, the Shadow is presented as the only check on a world slowly spinning out of control -- like a force of nature with an arched eyebrow. Campbell's work is (forgive me) good and gritty, with thick, impressionistic lines and a fine design sense. I'm looking forward to issue #2.

Tim O'Shea

Dark Horse Presents #11: Sometimes you come to a new character wanting to like it. That’s the situation with Francesco Francavilla’s "Black Beetle." And he did not disappoint me. The real appeal of Francavilla’s work for me? His use of colors. It’s astounding the amount of talent that Dark Horse crams into this issue—the other highlight to this issue was writer John Arcudi/artist Jonathan Case on the first chapter of "The Creep."

Mike Richardson’s perspective on the industry is more seasoned than most veterans, so when he writes something I try to pay attention. The intro to this issue is no exception: “The lure of working on one’s favorite company character or achieving the status of ‘Big Two creator’ is great, I admit, but the rewards can be much greater for an artist or writer who travels his own path ... Two years ago, as I walked through artists’ alley in San Diego, I spotted comics work that stopped me in my tracks. I looked over absolutely stunning pages featuring a popular Marvel character, and asked the young artist responsible why, with his obvious talent, he wasn’t working on his own project. He came right back at me with: ‘Why should I? I’m working on [insert name of Marvel character].’ I asked if he’d answer a few questions for me, and, though bothered by my request, he agreed. I asked him who had worked on Superman ten years ago. He didn’t know. I asked him who had worked on Batman ten years ago. He didn’t know. I asked the same question about Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four. His answer remained the same for each: he had no idea. He tried to disengage, but I was able to persuade him to give me one more minute. I asked him who had worked on Sin City ten years ago. He said Frank Miller. Hellboy? Mike Mignola. The Goon? Eric Powell. Suddenly a light went on in his head, and his expression changed. He turned, grabbed a business card off his table, and handed it to me. I rest my case.”

Avengers #25: There’s an endangered species in comics—the smiling superhero. That endangered being arrives on page 6, as a beaming Thor pays a visit to Cap. And Thor has never looked better—why? Because the artist is Walter Simonson. It is so refreshing to see Simonson back in the Marvel universe.

Chris Mautner

One of the other books I read while on sick leave but only recently finished was Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books by Jean Paul Gabilliet. As you might have guessed by his name Gabilliet is French -- originally published in France in 2005, this is a recent translated edition by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen and published by University of Mississippi Press. Several pundits have griped that there's no definitive "history of American comics" available, but Gabilliet, despite living across the ocean, does a pretty good job of encapsulating the history, shape and scope of the comics industry in America, from the 18th century all the way to the early 21st. Along the way he how public perception of the medium has changed over time, how the production and readership has altered, and the market forces and cultural shifts that helped produce these changes. When he's dealing with more aesthetic issues he's on shaky ground ("Even the staunchest defenders of Jack Kirby recognize that the stories he produced for DC at the start of the 1970s after his departure from Marvel were inferior compared to his past collaborations with Stan Lee." Um, no they don't.) but overall this is a solid overview of the industry as it progressed through the 20th century. It's very dry and more than a bit academic, which will no doubt turn off casual readers, and there aren't many deep, stark revelations, but for those looking for that "all in one" type history lesson will want to check this out.

Brigid Alverson

Last week I went to Chicago for C2E2, and since I knew I would be covering the Valiant panel, I picked up one of the original Valiant comics from the 1990s, Harbinger, to read on the trip. It's sort of goofy and sort of good. The premise is teens with super psychic powers uniting against a sinister enemy, and the story begins with the assembling of the team. In some ways it's very cartoony, but there are flashes of insight where the characters reflect on what is going on and what they have just done. The characters are pleasingly quirky. Of course the blonde white guy, Peter Stancheck, is the leader of the group, just like in Scooby-Doo and every other teen-team cartoon--but I like it that his non-psychic girlfriend is a central character. I'm also fond of Zephyr, an overweight fangirl who suddenly finds her fantasies come true when Peter unlocks her powers; she's ready to go, with a boxful of costumes and plenty of strong opinions of her own. Admittedly, the character named Flamingo lacks subtlety--she's super-sexy and also controls the power of heat--but the smart-but-uneducated, musclebound Torque is fun to watch. The original Harbinger has a dated feel, and it's a very comic-y comic; it will be interesting to see what Valiant does to update it when they relaunch it this summer.

I'm reading two Vertical manga series that couldn't be more different. GTO: 14 Days in Shonan is a continuation of the GTO (Great Teacher Onizuka) series that was a big hit for Tokyopop about 10 years ago. You don't need to have read the original series (I haven't) to enjoy this, although there are a few loose ends here and there. Onizuka is a middle-school teacher who is a serious badass in a good-natured sort of way. In this series, he gets himself into trouble right off the bat and heads out to his hometown, the resort area of Shonan, to lie low for a while. Almost immediately he runs into a beautiful woman who is running a group home for troubled youngsters, and thanks to the powerful combination of idealism and lust, he volunteers to help out. The basic plot has been done a million times in the movies, but GTO has something special, an over-the-top quality that makes it a lot of fun to read. Think Cromartie High School meets Man of the House. Vertical does a nice job with the first volume, which includes color pages in the beginning and translator's notes at the end.

Drops of God, on the other hand, is subtle and refined. It's a soap opera about wine connoisseurship, and it opens with a scene that lays out some basic principles of oenology, cloaked in a story about embarrassment and attraction. It's the formula that makes manga such a great educational tool! Seriously, though, Drops of God is the manga version of those glossy TV dramas we used to love in the 80s, with beautiful art, powerful people, and a general air of luxury to it.

Finally, I started the new Popeye comic, which was written by Roger Langridge and illustrated by Bruce Ozella. It has been a long time since I read Popeye comics--the last one was probably when I was 10 years old--but this one has a nice, familiar feel to it. Thankfully, IDW did not try to update the look of the comic in any way; the colors are flat and the character designs are similar to the originals. Langridge's dialogue rings true as well, although there are a few modern references. And Wimpy is still Wimpy. This is one of those comics that I think will work well for both kids and adults, as kids take it at face value and the grownups enjoy its nostalgic quality.

Jessica Campbell

Quoi! by David B., Charles Berberian, Jean-Louis Capron, Jean-Yves Duhoo, Killoffer, Mokeit, Joann Sfar, Stanislas, Lewis Trondheim

When I was a teenager, I worked as a book buyer in a bookstore in Victoria, BC where I started a (wildly unpopular) French comics section largely with the intention of ordering L'Asso books and ended up spending a few months trying to track them down. They had no website, nor could I find their books at any of the regular French distributors I worked with. Eventually, I'm pretty sure that I ended up looking up their fax number in the Paris phone book (did phone books list fax numbers? I can't even remember) and contacting them, ordering their books for the store, and, ultimately, buying back pretty much all of them for myself.

Which is all to say that, of course, I was raptly interested in the strike last year and what was happening with the organization; we all were. Quoi! is a history of L'Association penned by four of the founders as well as some other L'Asso published cartoonists. It covers the the company's history to date, with a huge emphasis on everyone's ongoing conflicts with JC Menu. This book is seriously like a Nabokov-style literary bitch slap (can I say this? Whatever.). Menu comes across as a paranoid, depressed, alcoholic bully who changes his mind constantly. Trondheim literally says at one point (and I quote): "You are alcoholic, you are depressed, and you are crazy." Menu liquidates his life insurance to print 20,000-30,000 copies of Tardi's sketchbooks that then don't sell, then insists on becoming the manager/head editor of L'Asso in part because he's broke. He's furious when the founders publish their books elsewhere and then, when offered the books, turns them down. He's told by a doctor that he needs to stop drinking but continues regardless... It goes on and on. It's tragic.

At one point, Joann Sfar illustrates an argument/meeting between the group (its funeral, they call it) that ends with Menu, alone on the sidewalk, begging everyone to come with him for a last glass of wine, and they all refuse and then go for a drink together, without him. Then the scene is then repeated by other cartoonists three times! It's impossible in this moment not to feel sorry for him, empathize with him. There's also a lot of talk of friendship/who is or isn't being a good friend at any given time. The book ultimately feels, as has the entire history of L'Association, somehow very "French." This is to say that it somehow embodies a collective spirit or ethos or something that doesn't seem so present in North American publishing. Like their strike last year; I cannot imagine that happening in North American publishing, but it seems like striking or worker's rights or something is built into the fabric of French society.

"...and then we'll get him!" by Gahan Wilson

I picked this up at a second-hand bookstore recently and have been leafing through it, though I haven't read it cover-to-cover or anything. Also, I'm not sure if I should be listing this as it's like 30 years old and definitely out of print. Gahan Wilson, though! Funny and smart and always a pleasure to read. I still haven't picked up Fantagraphics' beautiful and dauntingly huge Gahan Wilson monograph/Playboy collection, but I will, I swear! At least, once I know I'm never going to move again.

Chaos by James Gleick, Everything And More by David Foster Wallace

Honestly, while I love comics, I spend at least half of my designated reading time (aka bath time?) reading prose. Right now I am reading Chaos, which is a book about the history of chaos theory and Everything And More, about infinity and its history. Frankly, both of these books, while purportedly written for the layman, are a little too mathematically advanced for me (I dropped calculus THREE times, if you can believe that), but they're interesting. David Foster Wallace's book, in particular, I find readable and enjoyable, maybe in part because he'll often kind of delve away from the specifics of physics equations into a more esoteric rumination on mathematical thought or the history of science or something. Anyway, it remains to be seen if I will finish either of these books because, frankly, I have the terrible habit of putting books down midway through ALL THE TIME, regardless of whether I like them or not.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

I finished this first novel recently and found it really enjoyable. It's not perfect, but there are parts that are laugh-out-loud funny and I burned through about 75 percent of it in a day because I couldn't wait to finish it. The story is that the adult children of two performance artists must, against their wishes, move back in with their parents due to various life circumstances/failings. The chapters alternate between the present-day narrative and hilarious descriptions of uncomfortable public performance pieces. Also, my mom LOVED this book.

Hot Pink by Adam Levin

This is a collection of short stories by Adam Levin (The Instructions). I'm only part way through, but they are funny and kind of rough and excited. Levin studied with George Saunders, who studied with Donald Barthelme, and it shows, though certainly Levin's work is a lot less absurd than either of the aforementioned. He also recently came to do a reading in the D+Q bookstore here in Montreal and it was very funny/intelligent. I'm looking forward to finishing this and then maybe starting on that behemoth The Instructions? Maybe.

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