Hello and welcome once again to What Are You Reading?, where every week we talk about the comics, books and other stuff we’ve been reading lately.
Our special guest this week is musician and comic creator Nate Powell, who you might know from his most recent graphic novel, Any Empire, or the Ignatz and Eisner Award-winning Swallow Me Whole. When he's not creating comics, he's hanging out at the United Nations with the likes of R.L. Stine, Ann M. Martin and other teen-fiction writers in support of What You Wish For, a collection of young adult stories and poems. Proceeds from the book will be used to fund libraries in Darfuri refugee camps in Chad.
To see what Nate and the Robot 6 crew have been reading, click below.
In this week’s Food or Comics I said that I’d run out of ways to praise BOOM!’s Planet of the Apes series. Having read the seventh issue, I’ve found another one.
As the series has progressed, writer Daryl Gregory has been using the ape/human conflict to shine a light on human atrocities like terrorism and containment camps. I wasn’t comfortable with that at first-–in fact, I’m still not--but I realize that that’s the point. These are complex issues and it’s very much in the Planet of the Apes spirit to touch on them in a way that lets them remain difficult. Is terrorism always evil or are there ever causes that justify it? Planet of the Apes doesn’t claim to have the answers, but it’s raising the questions in fascinating and, perhaps more importantly, entertaining ways. It also helps that the art’s so beautiful and exciting, it makes me cry.
Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors #6: Writer Mark Andrew Smith completely surprises me with the conclusion to the first arc. Instead of being the reveal I thought it would be, he instead gives us a plot moment that will serve as a catalyst for even bigger things in the series. The battle scenes that dominate the issue are some of artist Armand Villavert’s strongest pages of the series. If I have not convinced you to buy the series before now, you may be interested to know that Image will soon be releasing a trade paperback of these first six issues.
Secret Avengers #18: This issue in particular reminded me of writer Warren Ellis’ early 2000s Global Frequency series. As much as I appreciate the writer’s approach to Shang-Chi with this issue, what really shines (and makes the issue a must read) is David Aja’s Escher-like layouts on a particular series of fight scenes.
Avengers Academy #20: Writer Christos Gage’s ability to write an ensemble cast never ceases to amaze me. This issue serves as a major transition point in the series, allowing readers and characters to look in the rear view mirror and see where the story has gone and the potentials of where it might travel. When I started reading this series, I never fathomed that Veil would be so central to the book’s appeal and theme. Not to be a stuck record, but if you are one of those readers who have been left cold by most Avengers writing for the past several years, this is the book for you.
Avengers Solo #1: Jen Van Meter’s script (Hawkeye as detective is the core premise) works for me, but is severely hindered by the art. I normally like Roger Robinson’s art, but for whatever reason in this particular assignment he is inked and colored in a vibrant noir style that comes across as a poor imitation of Howard Chaykin. Two characters in the book have a costume so similar in design; I could not tell who was who. I so wanted to praise this story from the rooftops, as I am a huge Van Meter fan. The back-up Avengers Academy tale is a solid follow-on to this week’s issue, written by Jim McCann and with art by Clayton Henry.
All-Star Western #2: This is one of the new DC universe books that are not hindered by starting from scratch. Jonah Hex is Jonah Hex and Moritat on art is just some of the most exquisite Hex/horror/Western art you can buy for—oh crap I just realized I paid $3.99 for it. Memo to DC, you are really annoying me with making me pay an extra buck for a preview of a crappy-looking Lee Bermejo story that I will never buy.
Daredevil #5: I have run out of words to praise Mark Waid’s Daredevil. Just go get it. This may be the first current mainstream Marvel book I will let my 12-year-old son read (he normally reads the all-ages titles), That's how much I enjoy the series.
Spaceman #1: Not really sure what story Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso is trying to tell with this nine-issue mature reader miniseries. But offering the first issue for a buck made me buy it. The art is, as always with Risso, strong as hell. But the dialogue that Azzarello saddles some of the characters with is quite annoying. I will leaf through the next issue, but I am unsure if I will actually buy it.
Spider-Man Marvel Adventures #19: Sean T. Collins writes a really great battle story between Kraven and Spidey in an office building. That’s asentence I never fathomed writing. Seriously, artist Pere Perez has a stairwell layout that was a sheer delight to view, would love to know if that was Collins' idea or totally from the mind of Perez. And that was after getting to enjoy the first half of the comic, which has J.M. DeMatteis and Clayton Henry doing a Freaky Friday-type tale with Spidey and Silver Surfer.
Master Of Reality by John Darnielle (33 1/3 series, Continuum Books, 2008)
“I opened up my eyes, and I wondered whether my younger self was actually somebody who’s still inside me at all… I’m 26, but I’m not ready for my 16-year-old self to be dead. So I bring his ghost to work with me and hold séances behind a locked office door and when I come out of it there’s this gigantic salad in front of me and I want to start eating it with my bare hands, reciting these childish lyrics out loud, spitting sunflower seeds and bacon bits in big chunks at the wall.”
I can’t believe it took me this long to get around to reading this book. I’d eagerly awaited its release from the moment I heard news of its existence, but it finally arrived in my mailbox as a considerate gift from Leigh Walton with the attached note, “See if it isn’t the most Nate Powelly book ever written.”
Almost immediately, this novel just felt right. Darnielle’s music has proved crushing and illuminating, particularly the 1997 Mountain Goats album Full Force Galesburg, having both encompassed the shittiest period of my life and having held some responsibility for pulling me out of that self-erasing era. Master Of Reality (using Black Sabbath’s 1971 masterpiece as its core) challenges itself to represent certain sentiments we’d only admit we truly take or took seriously in trusted company—that music can truly be salvation, that our surroundings are truly ugly and lame, that the people we think we know truly don’t understand. What makes this kind of exploration bold is the potential for embarrassment, as creators and as readers. Darnielle’s protagonist and narrator is a smart, sensitive, troubled teenager in the mid-1980’s—but importantly, not too smart, and troubled because he’s simply too sensitive for the strip-mall blight around him. I accept this contract with the author, and I believe in the gravity of his character’s assessment of the world, of clichés laid out with an intimate enough lens, close enough to the embarrassment itself, that such statements immediately cease to be clichés.
Darnielle’s protagonist ruminates on Sabbath as a teenager and again later as an adult having unearthed his old psychiatric center-mandated journals, hammering in the fundamental, primal function of headbanging, assumptions on the fathers of metal’s decision-making processes through the limited perspective of an American teenager, and for any true lover of Black Sabbath, an utterly convincing blueprint of their two-dimensional.
“Normally even the hard music is supposed to sort of take you higher but when I borrowed this album from Mike I knew it wasn’t just the pot, it was like the whole point was ‘everything is a bummer, even your fantasies are a bummer.’”
Downtune those guitars, children.
From The Graveyard Of The Arousal Industry by Justin Pearson (Soft Skull Press, 2010)
As abrasive and impenetrable as his musical endeavors can be, Justin Pearson’s memoir is laid out the only way I could imagine it, as the music’s blunt, brash foil. Pearson’s account is incredibly intimate without even a trace of sentimentality, and this is important to accept early in the reading process. He makes no qualms about the emotional and physical barriers he’d learned to establish for the sake of survival in a fucked-up childhood and adolescence, and the necessity of building something real under his own power, and through whatever means were available at the time.
Struggle, Pearson’s first band, was one of the earliest hardcore punk bands I was exposed to as an eighth-grader. Our bands floated and toured around in the same circles for years, but only played together a few times. His most widely-known band, The Locust, drew as much ire and hatred as it did excitement and anticipation. As a 22-year-old stuck in the trap of needing to be painfully earnest about every goddamn thing that came out of my mouth, I found myself as frustrated as I was stimulated at Locust shows, which inevitably spawned 3-hour debates about the band later that night at the diner. When Soophie Nun Squad and The Locust occasionally shared the stage, we were (cosmetically) polar opposites trying to communicate similar things with our music, and this healthy-but-dissonant relationship was hard to reconcile in a well-meaning but deeply flawed late-90’s punk climate—a climate stating that we should make waves against the shores of the outer world, but should generally avoid challenges to our collective concept of why we think we’re not a part of the world we hate, why we think we’ve got so much in common anyway, and who we alienate.
Pearson’s music has always been a part of this essential push-pull relationship, and I’ve grown to increasingly love and respect his bands’ dedication to the truly annoying, the truly questioning, the truly interesting. Decade-old memories of naked young men wearing only gas masks shitting on a Michigan venue floor while uprooted shrubbery is thrown amidst makeshift fires and flying bodily fluids finally get the answers they’ve been longing for. His narrative is honest and unabashed enough to raise the question within me, “why didn’t I just ask him all these questions when I was twenty? Just how many assumptions did I make about people around us? What the hell was wrong with me?”
Big Questions by Anders Nilsen (Drawn & Quarterly, 2011)
I started reading Nilsen’s individual issues starting with #3, and had been waiting for this collected volume for ten years. I won’t hesitate to say that Big Questions is probably my favorite comic of the last decade, and that it approaches uncertainly, darkness, hope, cruelty, dedication, and selfishness in a way that makes most other efforts seem like a waste of paper.
Nilsen gets away with a task of this size by simply following the (mostly animal) characters’ actions without an obvious directorial perspective—the reader never feels that they’re being intentionally moved in a particular direction or towards a certain topic by the creator. This might be because the narrative took nearly 15 years (in as many installments) to unfold, and a lot changes in a creator’s priorities in that time. Major events in the storyline come as genuine surprises, and my emotional response to the losses of certain characters was much heavier than I expected.
The world depicted in Big Questions is certainly aware of ours, and of its political and social realities, but only one ambassador from “our world” makes his way through the book, slowly and begrudgingly adapting his method of interacting with others, relearning what it means to survive. Most of the internal social structure is found within a group of birds who are drawn so similarly that it came as a shock and a true joy to discover that I’d grown to care about each bird and their individual struggles so deeply. A kind of magic was at work; the birds’ once-uniform depictions retroactively became nuanced, attentive, undeniably unique.
Big Questions, like McCarthy’s The Road, is not in any way a pick-me-up, but its flashes of lightness in an impenetrably grave situation provide measured glimpses into the other side of a world just behind it, or just before it. This collection is a necessary exploration of an endlessly murky and uncertain existence.
Americus by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill (First Second, 2011)
Reed and Hill are successfully making a case against people losing their goddamn minds these days. Americus is a focused, efficient narrative tackling the poisonous, anti-intellectual, privileged forces of the authoritarian evangelical Neanderthals we know so well against, well, a world they think is theirs.
I grew up in the suburbs of Arkansas, just down the road from Americus’ fictional Oklahoma town. The setting could have truly been anywhere in the country, but at no point came off as a generic depiction of suburbia. No, this was the world in which many of us came of age. Cultural threats and scapegoats shifted every few years—the Satanic Ritual Abuse craze of 1985 begat the Judas Priest suicide trial-farce that fueled the proper Satanic Panic in which I devoted myself to heavy metal, the occult, and fantasy storytelling. This era was essentially put to rest with the West Memphis Three witchhunt of 1993, to be quickly replaced by a deep suburban terror of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, only to be dethroned in time by Marilyn Manson. What made the perceived threats so bizarre was the evangelical Neanderthals’ insistence that depictions of reality and fantasy were interchangeably dangerous.
Americus centers around a popular all-ages fantasy epic patterned after the success of Harry Potter and its predecessors. We get glimpses into the literary adventures cherished by so many folks in the book, but don’t get too much, and this is important, as the town’s (and my town’s, and yours’) authoritarian evangelicals have never really been concerned with what’s actually in the offending articles. In fact, the whole crux of the book and its frustrating reality is that such vocal opposition is focused on what the books represent, which is a world that has room for more than just one perspective or value system. Possibility really is frightening.
MK Reed’s dialogue is quite natural and believable, and Jonathan Hill’s brushstroke is clear, competent, and descriptive. Americus, as a graphic novel readable by anyone age 12 and up, is an welcome addition to the much-needed broader discussion about the role of the Arts in our society, the powers and motivations at play in the effort to crush a more truly representative world, and the terrifying rise of these proto-fascists we know so well, not just at the local level, but when the battlefield is what we read, listen to, and how we think.