What Are You Reading? with Von Allan

Hello and welcome once again to What Are You Reading? This week our special guest is Von Allan, creator of the self-published graphic novel series Stargazer. The first volume is still available, while the second one is due in shops in October.

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


Michael May

I finished The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde. After the thrilling first issue, I got bogged down in the middle two issues wondering about the point of the story. This is the problem with a lot of Jack the Ripper stories. Thanks to From Hell's searing the case into my brain, I'm familiar enough with it to know its beats and see then coming. That means that I have time to pull the story apart and look at the details: What's different about this version? Does it have anything new to say? Ultimately, I decided that Mr. Hyde does. By combining the Ripper story with Jekyll-and-Hyde, it lets each comment on the other. Dr Jekyll's theories about the separation of good and evil helps explain the Ripper's actions, while the Ripper case in turn offers a real-life example of those theories at work.

Unfortunately, the mini-series wants to blur the lines between good and evil. An example of this is that there's no visual distinction between Jekyll and Hyde, but the story reinforces the idea in other ways too. While I appreciate the ambition of that goal, I think it's kind of misguided for this particular story, which would seems to be all about the separation of those two natures. That's what Jekyll's serum was supposed to do in Robert Louis Stevenson's story and if there's ever been an example of a purely evil human, Jack the Ripper is it.

By the final issue though, the story's weaknesses don't matter very much. It ends with a strong climax that made me forget the themes I'd been wrestling with. The story's strength is in its two, lead characters: Hyde and Inspector Adye. Their relationship and conversations are fascinating and I wanted to see both of them survive to the end of the story. As I approached the conclusion, that's all that mattered to me.

I also read the first two issues of BOOM!'s Elric: The Balance Lost. I think Elric fans will enjoy it. The problems I have with it are the same problems I have with Moorcock's stories: not enough focus on Elric - whom I find fascinating - and too much on the other incarnations of the Eternal Champion. An advantage the comic has over the novels though is that it makes the non-Elric incarnations more interesting to me by doing the work of visualizing them and their worlds for me. I never spent a lot of time doing that in the novels because I was too busy wishing we could get back to just Elric.

I also appreciate The Balance Lost's including a new incarnation of the Eternal Champion from our world. Not only does that give new - or, in my case, extremely lapsed - Elric readers a character through whom to learn about Moorcock's Multiverse, but it allows Moorcock's ideas about Law and Chaos to play out in a real-world setting. While I think that Balance Lost is heavy-handed (many will disagree with me though) about how it assigns Law and Chaos to particular political groups in the US, it's still interesting to see those groups' agendas carried out to their ultimate conclusions. It also invests me in a very real way in the struggle to maintain balance between those two forces.

Brigid Alverson

I finally got around to reading Anya’s Ghost, by Vera Brosgol, and I was blown away by it. Brosgol’s simple, rounded style belies the sophistication of her story. Anya is every teenager, uncomfortable and awkward, wishing she could be normal, like one of the cool kids. A chance encounter with a ghost seems to be the answer to her prayers, but then the ghost takes over and things get ugly. The ghost story is pretty good, but what Brosgol is really writing about is growing up, pushing away the things of your past and then embracing them again, realizing that the others you envy are as scared and troubled as you are, and most important of all, learning empathy for others. The art and writing are top notch, and I really hope this book will catch on with high-schoolers the way Smile did with the middle school crowd.

I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy of Matt Phelan’s Around the World, the story of three travelers who traveled around the globe at the turn of the 19th century: Thomas Stevens, who did it on a bike, Nellie Bly, who did it for the publicity, and Josiah Slocum, who did it solo in his sailboat. Phelan’s style is both simple and complex: Despite the exotic subject matter, he eschews complicated backgrounds filled with local color, but he will devote three panels to a single double-take, and he often follows a conversation with a reaction shot. The section on Stevens was my favorite, because I enjoyed his little sketches of Stevens falling off his penny-farthing bicycle in a number of acrobatic ways. My advance copy, alas, is in black and white; it looks like Phelan will use a fairly muted, pastel palette for the book, which suits his linework. It’s highly entertaining, and I can’t wait to see the finished version when it comes out in October.

Tim O'Shea

The Incredible Hulks #634: Intrigued to see where writer Greg Pak is taking Bruce Banner/Hulk before he ends his long run with the character. One has to wonder if Amadeus Cho will appear anywhere after this (I've grown to like the character). Also add Pak and artist Paul Pelletier to the list of creators I would love to see write Doctor Strange (he guest stars in this arc).

The Iron Age #3: Note to Marvel editor Thomas Brennan: You just worked with Louise Simonson, an experienced writer with an ability to write solid characters. Go find a monthly book for her. I love seeing Louise Simonson writing in present day comics, but I want more than these "flashback" homage assignments (Simonson also wrote for DC's current retro project).

Red Robin #16: An interesting coda to the series, which always had Tim Drake dancing with a darker path. I was surprised to see him leaning seemingly toward the darker path at the end of this issue. Not the satisfying end I had hoped for, but still an effort to give Drake's character some closure on a major front.

Marvel Adventures #17: Paul Tobin remains the master of done in one storytelling that makes this comic a must read for me. I loved his approach toward Black Widow in this issue, particularly the bluntness with which she deals with Nick Fury.

Black Panther: The Man Without Fear #522: I never imagined that in the chaos of the Fear Itself event, writer David Liss could find a way to inject a smidge of humor in the book, but he does. Also, this series is at its strongest when artist Francesco Francavilla is on board (as he is with this arc). I cannot wait to see how Liss ends the Hate Monger arc with the next issue. Extra points for the usage of an engaging supporting cast.

Batgirl #24: Good lord, Bryan Q. Miller finally writes a DC Comics series coda completely worth reading. Not only is almost everything wrapped up, but he uses Black Mercy as a means to reveal the vast possible arc scenarios that might have occurred if the series had continued. And the read is even more enjoyable if you check out the DC Women Kicking Ass guest post that Miller wrote this week (and we previously linked to, of course). Of all the possible scenarios, I wish we had gotten to see a time travel team-up between Babs, Cass and Stephanie during WWII with the Blackhawks.

Von Allan

Fantastic Four #307-323 (written by Steve Englehart, Pencilled by John Buscema and Keith Pollard, inked by Joe Sinnott). Due to the 50th anniversary of the Fantastic Four, I decided to pull out some of my old comics and dip my toes into some FF stories. I had been recently re-reading the first Fantastic Four omnibus that my wife had given me for a Christmas gift a few years back, but the anniversary along with Marvel's teasing of the return of the Human Torch made me wistful for Englehart's run. Why? Well, Englehart had crafted a series set in “real time” as opposed to “Marvel time.” In other words, readers were seeing real evolution in the Fantastic Four for the first time in a long while. Things weren't static, and this is actually the reason why I picked these comics up off the shelf at the time. I was curious to see what these changes would mean and Englehart didn't disappoint. Issue #307 sees Reed and Sue walk off into the sunset to raise Franklin while ol' Blue Eyes takes over running the team. Issue #308 solidifies the new FF as Ms. Marvel and Crystal hook up with Ben and Johnny (though that issue also sees the unfortunate Fasaud storyline and that was an early bump along the way). Later issues are stronger as the team begins to jell and has a number of cosmic adventures in true Fantastic Four fashion.

Are these perfect comics? No, I don't think so. Englehart overly uses caption boxes and it gives the narration a “heavy” feeling that I don't think has dated well. The same could be said for his use of thought bubbles. While I actually miss the use of thought bubbles in contemporary comics, in this case their use overly-dramatizes certain sequences and gives the stories more of a “soap operish” feel that didn't work well for me. That said, the freshness of the team and the sense of evolution is unmistakable and that DID speak to me. The departure of Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman is poignant (though admittedly not nearly as much as Alan Moore and Curt Swan's “Whatever Happened To the Man of Tomorrow?”) and that freshness also gives the creative team a chance to explore both old friends and foes and show them in a new light. I'm certainly not saying that real time stories are the end all and be all of good comics, but stories like these show how well it can work when it's done well. And make me wish that Marvel had never stopped evolving.

The Mighty Thor Omnibus (written and illustrated by Walt Simonson). I actually have many of these issues as periodicals, but I couldn't resist picking up a copy of this to be able to read, especially after I learned that Simonson had kept all of his art boards and this edition was put together from new scans before being re-coloured by Steve Oliff and his Olyoptics Color Shop. These are, to my mind, truly fantastic comics. Walt Simonson's respect and love for the character (spelled out in some of the early letter pages that are sadly lacking from the Omnibus edition) is apparent from the get-go as are his feelings for the Norse myths. His Thor is a wonderful fusion of the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby 60s Thor and the best that the Norse myths have to offer. It's funny; Marvel's Thor is one of those characters that's tricky to do well. When he's not up to snuff the stories are these weird hybrids of Shakespearean dialogue mixed with heavy melodrama. Simonson's run is the exact opposite and his entire run (even the frog!) works very, very well. What's also interesting to me, in this era of decompressed storytelling we find ourselves in, is how each issue stands on its own and yet is still part of a bigger overall story. There's no feeling of padding it out.

Since I'm also a big fan of Simonson's art, his work on Thor is amazing. Thor “feels” cosmic and there's a very strong contrast between the scenes set in Asgard versus the Earth-bound scenes set primarily in New York City. His penciling and composition is great, but his inking is just unbelievable. Strong and bold but always with a clear purpose in mind. Great stuff.

Another aspect that makes Simonson's Thor a cut above almost anything else is the lettering by John Workman. His lettering is stunning throughout Simonson's run and it does exactly what good lettering is supposed to; engage the reader without confusing them. The balloon placements make sense and Workman leads your eye throughout both panel and page without confusing you or forcing you to read balloons out of order. It's intuitive. His use of sound effects (something I'm normally not crazy about) works well here, too. His approach shows, to my mind, how much lettering is a part of good storytelling.

The one criticism I have is the colouring. My sensibilities are old-school and I suspect others will disagree with me here but what the heck; as much as I like a lot of what Olyoptics does, I just find there's something missing in the Omnibus colours compared to the original issues. The colours are a bit garish and over-rendered to my mind compared to the more muted colours that were displayed in the original issues. I suspect Oliff was trying to balance the original colouring with current sensibilities, but it doesn't work perfectly for me. Does that mean it's bad? No, no. Far from it. For my tastes just not as good. Oh, and I should add that the omnibus has brilliant blacks, especially when compared to the original issues, mainly due to the better quality of the actual paper and printing process.

Speaking of colouring, I was also recently re-reading Shaolin Cowboy (issues #1-7, written and illustrated by Geof Darrow). The colourist here is Peter Doherty and his colouring is absolutely fantastic. Really stunning stuff. Burlyman chose a terrific paper to print Shaolin Cowboy on and Doherty's colours really come to life on its texture. There's a beautifully muted sense to them that didn't over-power me and yet they still remain rich and vibrant. Often times paper used for comics and graphic novels is very slick and the colours are almost overpowering as a result. At least to me. In the case of Doherty and the Cowboy, the colours and interior paper work together extremely well. Better, I think, then the colours on the slicker cover stock for each issue. I should add that Darrow's “ligne claire” style really works well with Doherty's colour sense and palette.

Darrow's storytelling on Shaolin Cowboy was also very, very good. What's interesting to me is that the comics that draw me back and make me re-read them are the ones that have the strongest storytelling. Dave Gibbons is a natural. So is almost any Jim Shooter comic; he seems to bring that out of his illustrator collaborators. And, of course, Jack Kirby was probably the greatest. Darrow's Shaolin Cowboy is, I think, top-notch for this. Very strong storytelling, especially considering how peculiar the actual story is. The plots get weirder as the story progresses (oh, hell, they're weird from the get go and just get weirder), but despite that his storytelling is clear throughout. Lastly, Darrow's inking is great. He mixes thin and thick contours and your eye knows exactly what the focus is on each and ever panel. No confusion, no fuss and no muss. You know what to look at and why. Brilliant.

Continuing on the storytelling front, I finally got my hands on Jim Shooter and John Romita Jr.'s Star Brand run that also came to an abrupt end when, as I mentioned earlier, Shooter was fired from Marvel. At the time, the New Universe did not grab me as a reader. I was perfectly happy with the current universe, thank you very much, so the idea of a “new” one was not appealing. Well, in hindsight, at least with Star Brand, I was wrong and reading this series was a very pleasant surprise. Romita Jr.'s storytelling is top-notch; he establishes everything clearly and I was never confused in any of the issues. 'Course, that's not really a surprise since Romita Jr. is one of the best storytellers in comics. Shooter's writing here was also very good, and Shooter and Romita Jr. really work well together. Everything is smooth and clear and, when I mentally compare this to some contemporary super hero comics, I'm surprised at how much I prefer a comic like this.

I did find the story a bit rushed in the first issue. A lot of things happen very fast; Shooter's establishing as much as he possibly can right away and I think some of that could may have waited 'til issue #2. I suspect trying to get a new line launched probably meant that he wasn't taking any chances, but the story worked better on a re-read then the first time through. Still, for a comic from this era (circa 1986), it's pretty good stuff and holds up very well today. Certainly more adult in tone and characterization and it's a shame that things all went to hell at Marvel shortly after the series launched. Being a fan of his later Valiant books, I think the echoes between Star Brand and Valiant are also pretty strong.

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