List of all columns

Archives of Thursday Comics Hangover

Thursday Comics Hangover: Can you top this?

The eighth issue of Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber's crime comic The Fix was published yesterday, and this series keeps getting better. Ostensibly the story of two crooked Los Angeles cops and a drug-sniffing dog named Pretzels, The Fix keeps expanding to absorb more and more characters; what began as a character-focused heist story quickly (and effortlessly) became a huge ensemble piece.

Note those words: "expanding," "huge." This isn't the vocabulary you usually use to describe an Elmore Leonard riff. What wasn't apparent in the clever first issue of The Fix is that it's a shaggy dog story, a dirty-joke-riddled tall tale whose stakes are raised with every chapter. The reveal in the eighth issue is the biggest yet, and it leaves me wondering if eventually the threats in the book will have to transcend the semi-realistic sleazy LA noir genre to become intergalactic in scope.

Spencer's script is wry and character-driven. One of the two leads prays to God for a favor and apologizes for being out of touch for so long by saying "in Catholic school, they made it pretty clear it was you or masturbation, and I just--I got stuck with the home team, you know?" That is a lot of information about the character concealed within a gag that we didn't previously have before. A rule of thumb for reading a crime story: when a joke advances the plot, that's good writing.

From the wordless sequence depicting Pretzel's origin story that opens the issue to a series of pratfalls as a character tries to climb a fence that's too tall for him, Lieber's art is perfect for this kind of comedy. His figures and facial expressions aren't exaggerated in the least — he plays the characters straight, which makes the physical comedy and the quick stabs in the script land with even more force.

I have to wonder if The Fix might read better in collected trade editions than in single issues: while each issue feels like a contained chapter in a story, it could be easier to retain a sense of continuity when you read a bunch of chapters all at once. But no matter how you take it in, The Fix is a must-read: a funny, nasty, character-driven crime drama that keeps outdoing itself with every twist.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Thick as Thieves hits the streets

I couldn't make it out to the Thick as Thieves launch party last Sunday night at Brainfreeze in the old Lusty Lady building, but copies of the first official issue of Thick as Thieves have started to make their way through the city. You should pick one up.

I told you about the proof-of-concept issue of Thick as Thieves back in November. Basically, it's a free comic newspaper in the vein of Intruder, featuring Seattle-area cartoonists doing whatever they want for one full page per cartoonist. The issue just hitting stands this week is end-to-end entertaining.

The MVP of Thick as Thieves issue one is Seattle cartoonist Marie Hausauer, who recently published a terrific comic book about a dead raccoon. Hausauer contributes the cover for the issue, a beautifully rendered piece that resembles the work of Jason Lutes, and she illustrates the best, funniest strip in the issue, about a woman whose boyfriend undergoes a horrific transformation. (I don't want to tell you any more than that because the joke is too good.)

Other standout comics in the issue include an ode to skirts by Whitney Stephens, a great and gory comic strip offering a cathartic Donald Trump moment by Katie Wheeler, a great gag about a seemingly indefatigable customer service rep by Ben Horak, and a fantastic action strip by Marc Palm that has to be a contender for the (nonexistent) 2017 Award for Best Final Panel in a One-Page Strip.

A couple of pages in Thick as Thieves are uneven, but that's to be expected in an anthology. But the good far outranks the bad, and the increase in quality between the first test-run issue and this first official issue indicates that Thick as Thieves could eventually outstrip Intruder if editors Simon Lazarus Vasta and Ryan Tiszai continue on this learning curve.

Warren Ellis's later comics work hasn't done it for me. Even the stuff that most people dig, like Trees and Injection, have just felt like late-stage Ellis to me, which is to say it feels kind of like self-parody: people behave like bastards; they say outrageous things in a condescending tone; some giant threat vaguely makes itself known; finally, everything collapses into a highly unsatisfying ending. Nothing of Ellis's since Planetary has really worked.

To be honest, I'm not sure why I gave the first issue of The Wild Storm the time of day. It's a reboot of Jim Lee's awful Wildstorm superhero universe, which has never really interested me. But the only good Wildstorm comics were Ellis's — particularly his Authority and Planetary, which are the source code for pretty much every superhero comic published in the last decade and a half. The thought of Ellis returning to these comics to restart them with a clean slate seemed like a mammoth mistake. I guess I wanted to gawk at a car crash.

The car crash didn't happen. The Wild Storm is easily Ellis's best mainstream work in a while. It's dialogue-heavy, and a few of the characters aren't immediately unlikeable, which is a refreshing change of pace. You won't find any of Jim Lee's ludicrous costume designs here, and the characters are barely recognizeable; only their awkward insistence on being called by their superhero names — Zealot, Voodoo, etc. — ties them back to the old Image Comics days.

I don't know if The Wild Storm will hold up. It's scheduled to run for 24 issues over two years, and Ellis has proven that he's pretty bad at marathons, to say nothing of his inability to end a damn project in a satisfying way. But it's a promising start, at least.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Product of the 80s

Early in Sexcastle, a random goon threatens Shane Sexcastle by asking, "You ever hear the phrase 'You brought a knife to a gun fight?'"

Sexcastle responds, "This is worse than that. You brought a you to a me fight."

Sexcastle was first published almost two years ago, but it had escaped my attention until the good folks at Phoenix Comics turned me on to it last night. I was interested in an upcoming comic called Rock Candy Mountain about a hobo’s epic journey by a cartoonist named Kyle Starks, and they happened to have his first book in stock. It’s pretty fantastic.

Shane Sexcastle, the star of Sexcastle, is basically the protagonist of the world’s biggest 80s action movie — Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse blended with Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China, and then garnished with basically everyone who ever starred in an Expendables movie. He’s trying to start a new life working for a single mom florist, but he keeps getting pulled back in to a circle of violence.

Sexcastle is not especially witty. It’s a comedy that revels in the over-the-top violence of 80s action movies, but it doesn’t have the slyness or the critical eye of, say, Punch to Kill. It’s a fan’s celebration of a particular genre, and though Starks is a brilliant cartoonist — he can squeeze more action onto a single page than most Marvel Comics artists can fit into a single issue, and he can make it easier to follow besides — he’s not especially complex with the writing.

And that’s okay. Sexcastle doesn’t need to be deep. It’s funny and it’s imaginative and it’s expertly put together. On an otherwise slow week at the comics shop, that’s more than enough to win my allegiance.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The soul of Snagglepuss

I have written about how good the Flintstones comic is, but it has to be noted that the most recent issue, #8, is the best, most ambitious edition yet. It satirizes gender roles, economics, politics, and celebrity, and it also contains a great little story about how the ultimate goal of parenting should be to fuck the next generation up slightly less than your own.

My favorite part of the new issue is when a guest speaker named "Thorstone Pebblen" discusses "a brand-new field of research called 'economics.'" He explains it thusly: "When you trick somebody into participating in a small-time fraud, it's called a 'scam.' But when the scam is so big that people have no choice but to participate, it's called 'economics.'"

While underrated artist Steve Pugh is doing incredible work balancing the many tone considerations of the book, a vast share of the credit for this comic's success has to go to writer Mark Russell, who is somehow simultaneously paying homage to the old Flintstones cartoon's history of social satire while also forging his own path.

And then two days ago, Russell revealed in an interview with HiLoBrow that he's reimagining the Hanna Barbera cartoon character Snagglepuss as "a gay Southern Gothic playwright."

I envision him like a tragic Tennessee Williams figure; Huckleberry Hound is sort of a William Faulkner guy, they’re in New York in the 1950s, Marlon Brando shows up, Dorothy Parker, these socialites of New York from that era come and go.

This news spread on Twitter, but I couldn't quite believe it was true. It sounded too good, right? It had to be a joke, right?

Not so much. Yesterday afternoon, DC Comics released a page from the upcoming Snagglepuss comic, with art by Howard Porter. Click to enlarge this:

In the HiLoBrow interview, Russell calls Snagglepuss "very different from The Flintstones, it’s more about the creative process; much more of an intimate story." If he pulls this one off, Russell is going to be one of my favorite contemporary comics writers. In an ever-churning content world of reboots and reimaginings, he's doing the unthinkable: he's taking exhausted corporate IP and making it more personal, more thoughtful, and more relevant.

Thursday Comics Hangover: You maniacs! You blew it all up!

Jack Kirby's Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth was my favorite childhood comic. I didn't know it was a ripoff of the first Planet of the Apes movie at the time I started reading my brother's old issues. In fact, I probably started reading Kamandi a full decade before the first time I saw Planet of the Apes. And while I love the Apes reboot films, I still prefer Kamandi.

The premise of Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth is pretty much right there in the title: on a blasted-out apocalyptic earth — something called The Great Disaster happened an indeterminate amount of time ago — a human boy named Kamandi tries to survive. While Planet of the Apes just featured talking apes, Kirby populated Kamandi's planet with all kinds of talking humanoid animals: apes, yes, but also dogs, tigers, cheetahs, bears, and more.

Kirby packed Kamandi with all sorts of allegories for life in the 1970s — my favorite topical story involved a race of subterranean mole people who worship the Watergate tapes — but it was, primarily, a boy's adventure strip, a postapocalyptic sci-fi Jonny Quest.

Last week, DC Comics published something called the Kamandi Challenge Special, a squarebound sampler of Kamandi comics for $7.99. I've been waiting years for a nice, affordable sampler of these stories to give to the young comics fans in my life; I think Kamandi has a timeless quality that might appeal to any comics fan.

Unfortunately, this isn't the collection to pass on to a new comics fan. Frankly, the selection of comics in this edition is just plain weird. The book starts with a reprint of Kamandi #32, which is smack in the middle of an ongoing story involving a weird space organism that shifts from uni- to multi-cellular and back again. ("I am 'ME.' I can be...WE...! Now I am...US...!") It's a fun ride to be dropped in the middle of — one chapter is titled "Satan in the Sands," for crying out loud — but there's no real reason why it should be the story that opens the book.

Especially since the second book collected in the volume is the very first issue of Kamandi — one which introduces characters who we've already met in the first story. It's just a weird curation decision. And then the rest of the book consists of a black-and-white unpublished post-Kirby Kamandi story written by Jack C. Harris and drawn by Dick Ayers and Danny Bulandi which is itself wrapped around an unpublished Jack Kirby Sandman story that doesn't feature Kamandi at all.

Imagine you're just sitting down to watch a TV show. You've heard lots of good things about it. You're excited to watch it. But the first episode you watch is from the middle of the second season. Then you watch the pilot. And then you watch a shoddy clip show from a season well after the main actor has already left to launch his movie career. None of this makes any kind of goddamned sense, is what I'm saying.

If you're acquainted with Kamandi as a character but you haven't read much of his adventures, maybe the Kamandi Challenge Special would be worth picking up. It does feature, after all, a talking gorilla revolutionary named Ramjam. But anyone unacquainted with Kamand should stay far away from this awkward, poorly planned book.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Snow day

Not everyone realizes this, but every single comics store in the United States uses the exact same distributor: Diamond Comics Distributors. The collected graphic novels can be purchased directly through the publishers or through book distributors, but if you want to sell the staple-bound monthly so-called "floppies," you have to go through Diamond. There is no alternative. Diamond's last competitor, a distributor called Heroes World, was bought by Marvel Comics and then collapsed in the mid-1990s.

I bring this up because while Seattle is wet and relatively warm this week, we are surrounded on all sides by a horrifying snowscape. And the Diamond truck — the truck that carries every single comic headed to Seattle this week — can't get through the Pass. This means that no comic book store in Seattle had new comics yesterday.

It's really kind of batshit, if you think about it for a moment. If Diamond were to unexpectedly go out of business tomorrow, every comic book store in the country would be strangled for product. Dozens of shops would likely collapse within days, if not weeks, of Diamond's hypothetical closure.

Happily, while Diamond holds a monopoly on monthly comics distribution, they're not the only way for customers to get comics anymore. You can download them on your digital devices — although Comixology, the industry leader for digital comics, was bought by Amazon a while back, so you're basically trading one monopoly for another — and you can buy collected editions at your local independent bookstore. But it is very uncomfortable that all these hardworking small business owners in Seattle, many of whom have been in business for years, are reliant on one single truck making its way across a snowy mountain pass. There has to be a better model than this, is what I'm saying.

UPDATE 1/19/2017 at 1:14 pm: On Facebook, Short Run offers a terrific suggestion for a substitution for your weekly comics:

Visit Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery, Phoenix Comics and Games, Zanadu Comics, Elliott Bay Book Company, Left Bank Books Collective, and check out their LOCAL section.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Are you a Batman person or a Superman person?

I'm a Superman guy, not a Batman guy. Batman's fine — I've read plenty of Batman comics over the years — but ultimately Batman is about arrested development: any Batman story is basically a story of an emotionally stunted rich dude. There's only so much emotional wallowing you can do before you fall into parody. (I feel similarly about Trent Reznor: you can do a couple albums about the hurt in your soul, but after you make a couple critically acclaimed best-selling records, maybe you can afford a little therapy?) Will Arnett's portrayal of Batman from the 2014 Lego Movie spectacularly identified the character's ridiculousness, especially in this song:

Superman, on the other hand, is all about being an adult. I've written about what makes Superman an interesting character: internal conflict over complicated moral choices. Batman often can't withstand that kind of complexity.

But DC Comics recently released paperback collections of the first six or so issues of the 2016 Batman and Superman series, and I'll be damned if these two characters haven't flipped in my estimation: Batman is the more interesting, more adult character and Superman is caught in a tar pit of adolescent melodrama.

Let's be clear: Batman Vol 1: I Am Gotham isn't a transcendant superhero comic. Hell, it's not even the best superhero comic from writer Tom King to be released in the last year (that would be King's amazing Vision series, which added layers of depth to a weird tertiary Marvel Comics character.) But it is a hell of a lot of fun, with Batman facing down a pirate, a crashing 747, and a pair of superpowered heroes who want to make Gotham City a better place.

I Am Gotham deals directly with Batman's perennial Superman envy by introducing a team of heroes with Superman's power set but very little real-world experience. Most of the book consists of Batman trying to figure out if he can trust them, and whether he's been outclassed as hero of the city. King's Batman seems to be growing and changing: he's aware of his own flaws and he's actively trying to overcome them.

David Finch's art is not my favorite: everything looks a little too pinched, and heroes look a little too constipated. But here, Finch allows for more depth, introducing characters with different body types. His facial expressions could still use some work — so much grimacing! — but it's nice to see an established fan-favorite artist take on greater depth and range.

Speaking of depth and range, Superman Vol 1: Son of Superman delivers none. What a mess this comic is. It's unclear how much of this problem is due to writer Peter Tomasi and how much of it has to do with corporate edict. I can't even fully understand what's going on here.

So it seems that Superman is dead. But another Superman from a different timeline is seeking refuge in the dead Superman's timeline. This other Superman is married to Lois Lane (the one from his own timeline, not the one in the dead Superman's timeline) and has a child. This version of Superman is living in hiding, waiting for the dead Superman to come back to life. But eventually...

...oh, who cares? This book is just a bunch of flying and screaming and punching and angst, all signifying exactly nothing. It's too bad, too, because artist Doug Mahnke is one of the better Superman artists of our time: he can draw pretty much anything well: super-fights and morose graveside scenes and optimistic faces. But this story is all over the place, and not even Mahnke's remarkably solid art can provide a sense of consistency.

The one thing that Son of Superman does right is that it provides a great vision of Superman as a parent. His son with Lois, Jonathan, is basically a carbon copy of himself, only more reckless and more uncertain. This new character adds a new twist to the Superman formula: not only does he have to save the world, he has to raise a son while he's doing it. Being a parent makes Superman even more interesting. Too bad everything else about this Superman comic is so damn boring.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Vote for more superhero comics like this

By the end of 2016, I found myself completely disillusioned by corporate comics. Marvel Comics seem to be a neverending morass of recycled events and weird brand management choices. A few DC Comics titles are promising, but it seems as though getting comfortable there might be a mistake since the entire line will likely be rebooted as soon as sales drop low enough. These things happen in cycles, of course. A few years ago, Marvel was producing a bunch of work that transcended corporate dictates, and DC has had its moments over the last decade, too. I have faith that soon someone will break the cycle and make something worth reading again.

But in the meantime, Seattle writer G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel series continues to get superhero comics right. The secret, the thing that nearly everybody else gets wrong right now, is that Wilson keeps it personal. I've been re-reading Ms. Marvel issue 13 lately. It’s a topical issue — written and drawn (by Mirka Andolfo) before the presidential election, but published after — and it’s about Ms. Marvel getting involved in a mayoral election.

This election is between a smarmy Hydra agent (who Ms. Marvel calls “Chuck the Hydra hipster”) and a competent woman. The allegory for Clinton Vs. Trump is pretty on-the-nose for a corporate comic. Ms. Marvel travels around her beloved Jersey City, trying to recruit voters, but those voters are too apathetic to care. Moms are busy, crazy old cranks “haven’t voted since 1972” because they’re “protesting all the things,” and others believe that both candidates suck pretty much equally.

Because it’s a superhero comic, and because Ms. Marvel is thoroughly an optimistic work that believes the best of people, good triumphs over evil. That made Ms. Marvel a bitter pill to swallow in the weeks after the election, but this comic is already aging well. I read it now and think about what might have been had we seen a few more positive-hearted activists in the right places around the country. I read it and think that things can get better, and that democracy is worth the fight. It’s a superhero comic written from a personal, aspirational perspective, one that believes in a better world. Hey, DC and Marvel: more like this in 2017, please.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Women tell stories in order to live

Last week, I was thoroughly disappointed by a comic book that was supposedly about the enduring power of stories. This week, I’m entirely enchanted by a comic that demonstrates the empowering endurance of stories. Isabel Greenberg’s hardcover comic The One Hundred Nights of Hero is a story about stories wrapped in other stories, including a Scheherazade scenario in which a woman must tell a story so compelling that it distracts a lecherous man from advancing on her, night after night.

Greenberg’s art is deceptively crude. On first glance a panel in which five sisters gather around a candle in the midst of an inky night looks as though it could be a woodcut, the lines are so primitive and scratchy. But look a little closer and you’ll see finer details. One sister’s hand is splayed out on the ground for balance, another’s finely wrought braid winds down her back.

Throughout the book, Greenberg shades scenes with splatters and sprays of ink that look at times like Jackson Pollock took control of the pen. But those sprays of ink aren’t mistakes. In fact, they serve to remind the reader that the story they’re reading is ink on paper, a happily primitive medium that Greenberg uses to great effect.

Many of these stories are about the enduring power of women, and the unthinking malevolence of men. (The moral of one story: “Men are false. And they can get away with it.”) In one story, a woman reveals to her husband that she can read by writing “I LOVE YOU” onto a fogged window; the illiterate man then concludes that his wife is a witch who has cursed him with a magical spell.

These women revel in words and stories and books:

They read aloud to each other, they wrote great, swirling sentences in ink and charcoal, in mud and paint and pencil. They luxuriated sinfully in that most beautiful of all things: The written word.

These stories do not all have happy endings, but they are all meaningful tributes to smart women who persevere even when the entire world conspires against them. These are stories of gods and sailors and lovers and, most importantly, sisters. It’s a never-ending puzzle box of stories about stories, and the important role that women play in keeping stories alive for future generations. This is a book that will teach you how to fall in love with books again.

Thursday Comics Hangover: A library full of empty books

One Week in the Library comes in a format that doesn’t get enough play in comics shops: a ten dollar “graphic novella” that tells a single story from beginning to end. It’s a great format — not quite long enough to be a full-sized graphic novel, but longer than your standard monthly comics issue. More cartoonists should work at this size; it’s a great length for the medium.

Unfortunately, One Week at the Library isn’t the best advertisement for the format. By which I mean it’s a bad book. Written by W. Maxwell Prince and illustrated by John Amor, Library is the story of a librarian who works, alone, in an imaginary library. (“…the SAD ENCYCLOPEDIAS are in the Happy Corridor, which also houses the MISERY CHRONICLES, which themselves are part of THE SERIES OF IMPOSSIBLE JOY.”) The book is divided into seven chapters — one for each day of the week — and each chapter employs a different formal technique: one chapter tells a story in diagrams, another is prose, another is wordless, and so on.

You’ve seen this before. Library feels kind of like a Sandman knockoff, a story about the power of stories. But unlike Sandman, the stories never really grow beyond their concepts. They’re stories about stories for the sake of stories, and they just sort of sit there on the page, all vapid flash and shallowness.

Toward the end of the book, Prince writes himself into the story and frets over whether the reader will think he’s smart. To which I reply: if you want a reader to think you’re smart, maybe don’t quote Doors lyrics in your story. And a book about the depth and breadth of libraries should feel as though it was written by someone who has explored those depths. The literary references in Library are facile (Charlotte’s Web and Lewis Carroll get repeated shout-outs) and the library conceit disappears entirely at various points.

The Prince character self-consciously acknowledges the many comics writers who have appeared in their own books in the past, including Grant Morrison, and he whines that “I’m suffering a ton of anxiety that someone reading this will think I’m being lazy or derivative.” Unfortunately, simply acknowledging a critical complaint in a story isn’t enough to disarm that complaint, and writing a book about books isn’t enough to inspire warm literary feelings in a reader. The books in this library feel strangely empty of value.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The dead mammal

I can't stand raccoons. With their tiny little hands and the way they clamber, brazen and unafraid, into human spaces, they unsettle me in a way that no insect or snake ever could. There is just enough human in raccoons to be recognizeable, but just enough snout and fang and fur to make them alien. A live raccoon sighting will always raise my hackles, and raccoon corpses by the side of the road have never invoked my sympathy.

Seattle cartoonist Marie Hausauer's new book Raccoon centers around a dead raccoon in the middle of the woods. For the first few pages, the "camera" slowly pulls back from the racoon corpse. It's lying on its side, almost human in repose, its legs crossed demurely, one front paw extended out further than the other, as though reaching for something. Its eyes are closed, hidden behind the creepy black band of fur that masks the eyes like a cartoon burglar. It's impossible for anyone — even a lifelong raccoon hater like myself — to not feel sad for the critter.

Eventually, it rots. Its ribcage juts out of a gaping hole in its chest. The uglier the raccoon corpse gets, the more vivid its surroundings become. All around it, ferns and trees and grass grows in a circle, creating a kind of spotlight with the raccoon in the center.

And then come the people. Three sets of humans encounter the corpse, dealing with it in different ways. The first party is a group of adults who are complaining about kitchen remodel projects. "Looks like he died snarlin'," the guy in the hiking boots and the ugly floppy outdoorsman hat says as he crouches by the body. They complain a lot about the smell. Next, a group of teenage boys walk through, and then a moody young woman.

This is a book about death, and grieving, and morbid curiosity. No person who encounters the raccoon responds in exactly the same way as any other person. The reader observes them all, as though we're lurking back in the shady woods, hanging back and passively taking note of their reactions.

Raccoon demonstrates a terrific balance between words and images: the book is respectfully silent in its beginning and closing (death is traditionally a very quiet thing), and the human dialogue fades in and out, like happening upon snippets of conversation in the woods as people walk past you on the trail. The banality of hearing people complaining about their kitchen remodels in the midst of nature's baroque grandeur makes everything seem a little less important.

With Raccoon, Hausauer continues to rapidly grow and deepen as an artist. This is a confident literary work — it's easy to imagine a Carveresque story about these teenage boys, for instance — from a writer who's finding her voice. Raccoon's realism falls comfortably within the continuum of Northwest fiction. It feels like a story that could only spring from our part of the world, with its lush green backdrops and its brazenly invasive wildlife. You've seen the title character of this story rooting around in your trash. You've maybe even wished death upon it. This, Hausauer says, is what happens next.

(Raccoon is available for sale now at Fantagraphics Bookstore, Arcane Comics, Push/Pull, and Left Bank Books.)

Thursday Comics Hangover: Another new start for Wonder Woman

The big problem with Wonder Woman, the reason why the character has had a hard time taking hold, is that DC Comics keeps restarting her from scratch. I can't keep track of how many times I've seen the Wonder Woman character rebooted and relaunched. Sure, other DC mainstays like Batman and Superman tend to wallow in retellings of their origin stories, but those stories never seem to change as much as Wonder Woman's.

Batman's parents always get shot. Superman's always rocketed from the planet Krypton into a field in Kansas. But Wonder Woman? Seriously, who the hell knows what's going on with Wonder Woman? Her origin has been retold with varying levels of camp and seriousness and pretentiousness many times over the years, and so as a result it's all become a kind of narrative static.

Or at least, that's what I thought. But I just read another retelling of the Wonder Woman origin story, in the form of a hardcover collection called The Legend of Wonder Woman Volume 1: Origins by Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon, and it's the first Wonder Woman story that's kept my attention in years.

Legend is an all-ages-friendly retelling of the Wonder Woman story set during World War II. De Liz's art is dynamic and manga-influenced, which is perfect for the unique blend of mythology and historical detail that Wonder Woman demands. You won't find the rippling abs of modern superhero comics here; De Liz's figures are dynamic, but not over-idealized.

The story takes its sweet time to unfold. We start with a young Amazonian princess named Diana who is trying to figure out her place in the world, and more than half the book passes before her costume makes an appearance. Tonally, Legend makes a major shift at the halfway mark. The first part of the book is more like a young adult novel featuring a pensive lead who isn't sure if she should embrace her legacy, and the second half is a straightforward origin story with all the comedy and economy of a lively animated film.

These two tones might feel out of place were it not for the main character. Diana is a terrific protagonist. She doesn't demonstrate the ridiculous aw-shucks humility of Clark Kent or the dull perfection of Bruce Wayne. Instead, she's a quiet observer with a strong sense of right and wrong. She feels duty-bound to act, but she's equally duty-bound to make sure that her actions are the right ones. Without the first half of the book to establish Diana's thoughtfulness, the second half wouldn't be nearly as much fun.

Until The Legend of Wonder Woman, I didn't have a Wonder Woman comic that I could unhesitatingly give to a girl looking for an introduction to the character. Now I do: she's a strong female lead who's smart, interesting, and she beats the stuffing out of Nazis. What's not to love?

Another take on Short Run

Short Run Comix & Arts Festival was packed this year. There were quite a few booths I had to skip because of people eagerly blocking them. This is good — I was there a few hours after opening, and more than one artist I talked to spoke about being sold out of some items.

My favorite from last year, Laura Knetzger was back with a few new issues of her delightful comic Bug Boys. One of the stories, Issue Thirteen, was a kind of inner-journey psychedelic bug nightmare. It was a dark-night of the bug soul and a kind of peyote journey in the bug desert. In Issue Fourteen, Stag-B and Rhino-B accompany their friend the Bee Queen on a journey. Kntezger loves to put her bugs in underground contained architecture, placing them in situations of awe and fear, and evoking their truest natures. I find her work a great balm of philosophical thoughtfulness, and I’m always pleasantly surprised when her little heroes stumble on a new adventure.

Like Paul (our time at the festival overlapped, but we didn't see each other), I picked up Coyote and Butterfly Woman from Noel Franklin and Anne Bean, and appreciated its modern retelling of an old legend, especially for its Seattle setting, its tragic explanation of masculinity sadly pertinent this very week.

Hatem Imam, from Beirut, had a few interesting pieces in his booth. I picked up The Passing, a four-part story told largely in engravings and minimal text. The cover of each book was an intaglio copper-plate etching from the last story in the book, a nice tactile treat, and a very sober, serious presentation.

Making FRESH one-off cards for Short Run on Saturday. Take a picture it'll last longer!!! #shortrunseattle

A photo posted by Aaron Bagley (@aaronbagley) on

I said hi to Aaron Bagley, and picked up a set of small comics that he produced with his wife Jessixa Bagley, telling fictionalized mythologies centered on his parents house in Utah. I also bought one of his hand-illustrated greeting cards, a cat in a polka dot dress taking a picture of her spaghetti and meatballs dinner. (Secret about Aaron: he has a vast knowledge of outsider metal. If you like the heavy stuff, he always has good tips for obscure Japanese drone bands.)

I picked up the Colleen Frakes The Saint’s Eyes, fairy-tail(ish) shorts that were clever, often with fun or funny little twists at the end, and looked through her NaNoDrawMo book as well, which was interesting and fun and now I wish I had picked it up as well.

Emily Eagle had a great table, with many little projects, and a big print in simple blue hand-done type that read “this means your heart works”. I picked up her Giant Feelings, which is also her URL, and kind of perfect.

I walked away with (I paid, I promise!) a copy of RSVP by Gabrielle Bates and Catherine Bresner, what they call a “Poetry comic collaboration”, and that’s true. The art is primarily collage, and echoes some kind of Americana DNA that it was good to see conjured for uses of art.

Probably my favorite pieces I bought this year were from French artist Kerascoët, which is the pen name of married couple Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset, who manned the booth together. I sought them out after the recommendation from a friend, and I’m glad I did. Miss Don't Touch Me is a story set in the 1930s, a woman investigating a murder of someone close to her by joining a high-end Paris brothel as a never-to-be-touched dominatrix. The other, the Eisner nominated Beautiful Darkness, starts with fairy-like creatures emerging from the corpse of a dead girl in the woods, a horror countered by the cuteness of the characters.

When I first came to their table, the man in front of me, blood draining from his face, said "Wait, you're herthem? I'm a huge fan!" It was as if he had just met a Hollywood star. Marie took the time to draw beautiful inscriptions on both his — and my — books, which was worth waiting for. Crayon, pen, and characters, an artist drawing something for you right there at the table. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Thursday Comics Hangover: The best of Short Run 2016

Pre-election anxiety kept me from enjoying my Short Run Comix & Arts Festival to its fullest on Saturday. Last year, I wandered the floor for hours and talked to dozens of people. This year, I could only hang on the sidelines before diving into an aisle for a few minutes and then, overwhelmed by the crowds, retreating again. (Luckily, thousands of people were there to pick up my slack: it seemed as though there were even more attendees at this year’s Short Run than at last year’s, and social media seems to indicate that most of Short Run’s artists sold more books than any other year of the festival.) Because of my inability to mingle for very long, I came away from the festival with a very small stack of local comics. But it was one of the most satisfying hauls I’ve pulled away from any Seattle-area convention.

In addition to her contribution to the Rock Is Not Dead anthology, cartoonist Noel Franklin has three new comics out this fall. Can’t Say is a collection of short autobiographical and experimental comics, including an essay about gentrification in Seattle. Two other books, Jezinkas and Coyote and Butterfly Woman, are adaptations of old stories. Jezinkas is a folk tale, and Coyote, which is a collaboration with writer Anne Bean, is a retelling of a Nez Perce legend. Of the three, Coyote is the most successful: it transports a fable to modern-day Seattle and incorporates some very current gender dynamics into the narrative, creating something new.

Frequent collaborators Greg Stump and David Lasky each brought new work to the show. Stump was selling a collection of The Group, his 2001 and 2002 comic strip from The Stranger (“back when they had two whole pages of cartoons an issue,” someone grumbled.) The Group is the story of an unlikely team of heroes — an astronaut, a ninja, a dog, and Piece of Bread, a sentient piece of bread — who fight various challenges to world peace, including a devious plot to build a giant cowboy hat on top of the world. Piece of Bread makes some protest signs to stop that plan — “NO HAT” and “STOP THIS LUNACY” and “HAT PLAN SUCKS” — but the rest of the team is reconsidering their options. “Sure, we had our doubts at first,” the ninja explains, “but now I think I’m kinda pro-giant-hat-on-the-earth.” These are good, absurdist gag strips that had nearly been lost to the mists of history; seeing them again after 15 years was an absolute delight.

Lasky’s newest book, I am from the Future, collects every poem Lasky wrote in April of 2016 — one poem each day. As a poet, Lasky is expanding and finding his voice. He writes about cosplayers at Emerald City Comicon, buses that never show up, and confusing Facebook algorithms. Some of the poems in Future are comics, and others are presented in text. It’s the comics poems that really stand out, particularly the one on the back cover about the lines in his comics disappearing, leaving just “The colors in between” — floating pools of color with no borders to keep them separated from each other. The text and images work perfectly together to create a metaphor that could not exist solely in either words or pictures.

The second issue of Punch to Kill, by Kevin Clarke, Wil Long, and Marc Palm, improves on the over-the-top action of the first by introducing gaudy superheroics to the equation. While Punch to Kill is, appropriately, one long fight scene, the transition from the kung fu movie of the first issue to the 1980s-style comics riff of the second adds even more enthusiasm. There’s not really a plot in Punch to Kill — in this issue, a cloaked figure fights a quartet of thinly veiled Marvel characters — but the plotlessness, in a judo-flip kind of way, becomes the plot. It’s all giddy and gorgeous and packed with good jokes, like a superhero named Blastress and a punching sound effect that reads “TOUGH BREAK.”

And speaking of exuberance, two books from Mita Mahato’s table demonstrated a very different kind of excitement. Her latest solo book, Patterns, is a collage of comics characters (an elephant-headed girl, a spoon-headed figure with a pizza cutter sticking out of the bottom of her purple dress) failing to communicate. “Repeat after me,” a horse-headed girl tells a man in a pleated dress, who responds, “after me.” It’s part vaudeville, part demonstration of how hard it is to really talk and listen, and it’s entirely beautiful.

But maybe the star of the whole convention for me was Forty Two, an anthology comic by Mahato, Emilie Bess, and Short Run cofounder Kelly Froh. Forty Two is a collection of short pieces about becoming middle-aged women — there’s a lot of accidental urination involved, and also some weird body hair. Mahato reflects on how difficult it is to be a woman of color “watching brown people on TV growing up” — mostly stereotypes like Tattoo from Fantasy Island — and recalling some of the terrible things people have said to and about her, including “You’re not the kind of diversity people are interested in,” and “Mommy why is she so dark?” Each of the pages in this fanzine-style collection reveals something new about the act of growing older as a woman, and the three cartoonists goad each other into having a lot of fun. Forty Two seems to me to be the perfect use of the zine medium: it feels like a personal document, like a handwritten letter. It’s so confessional, and so fun, and so celebratory, that it can pick a reader up even when it feels as though the world is burning down. These are all voices that deserve your attention.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Doctor Strange could be a little more strange

Yesterday was comics artist Steve Ditko’s 89th birthday, which made it an especially fitting day to watch a preview screening of Doctor Strange. Ditko was the co-creator of the Doctor Strange character, and those early comics, published in Strange Tales in the mid-1960s, were probably the purest example of Ditko’s imagination ever put to paper. Strange frequently ventured to realms where giant creatures made of spikes would crawl out of pools of liquid floating in thin air, or where thick bands of ink formed protective barriers that would keep astral forms — essentially, the souls of humans — trapped away from their bodies.

The great thing about Ditko’s illustrations of magic in Doctor Strange comics is that they were basically marginalia pulled into the story — an artist’s mindless doodles given weight and narrative meaning. They were creative id made real. And in many ways, the special effects in Doctor Strange serve the same purpose as Ditko’s illustrations. In a few instances — particularly the multicolored sphere-and-rod molecular structures of the Dark Dimensions — they look exactly like Ditko art made three-dimensional. But in every instance, the special effects aren’t intended to look realistic: they’re concepts, digital doodlings, attempts to make bizarre concepts real.

The pulpy psychedelia of the early Doctor Strange comics are served well by the effects in the Doctor Strange film. A series of fractal hands and bizarre facial contortions early on, especially, capture the stoner vibe of Ditko’s art. And even the bits that feel familiar — you’ve likely seen the kaleidoscopic cityscapes in the trailers for the film, which feel like direct lifts from the iconic city-bending scenes in Inception — still take the source material to bizarre new lengths. Speaking as someone who has been thoroughly disappointed with just about every blockbuster film this year, it turns out that digital effects can be incredible when you don’t obsess over realism. This is a movie to watch on as big a screen as possible, and IMAX 3D is recommended. Your eyes will be happily exhausted trying to take it all in.

But it’s a shame that when Doctor Strange isn’t aping Ditko’s visual style, it’s mostly a very conventional superhero origin story. The origin that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko took eight pages to tell in Strange Tales #115 is stretched out to two hours here, and the Marvel film house style is basically in full effect. The score is unmemorable, a black sidekick character with similar powers accompanies the white male hero while still staying firmly in a supporting position (Chiwetel Ejiofor has almost never felt so wasted as he does in Doctor Strange), and the villain (Mads Mikkelsen) doesn’t get to demonstrate an interior life. Further, the story stops dead for massive exposition dumps on a regular basis, and given that the magic in Doctor Strange involves lots of chatter about spirits and the meaning of life, the effect can be similar to attending an overeager new-agey church for the first time.

That said, Benedict Cumberbatch is a fine and charismatic lead who does pretty well with the American accent and the same “overconfident jerk learns humility” arc that Iron Man and Thor and Chris Pratt's Starlord in Guardians of the Galaxy followed. Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong don’t have much to do in supporting roles, but they excel with what they’re given. In an unfortunately whitewashed role as the guru who shows Strange the ways of magic, Tilda Swinton elevates the film whenever she’s on screen.

Is Doctor Strange worth your time? I’d say absolutely, if just because it’s a delight to watch a blockbuster that finds inventive uses for CGI, rather than just rendering an endless array of explosions. It’s a likable, enthusiastic superhero movie, with all the baggage and all the entertainment that description entails.

But is Doctor Strange worthy of Steve Ditko’s art? On the whole, I’d have to say no. While the effects are marvelous, Doctor Strange fails to capture a particular alienated bitterness that almost always figures into Ditko’s work. His Strange was a wary, weird figure who didn’t connect well with normal humans. Instead, he sulked around his Greenwich Village home, wandered through weird dimensions, and spent lots of time with his head buried in books. While the look of the film is dead on, Doctor Strange could use more of Ditko’s characteristic misanthropy to distinguish the character’s otherness from the alpha-male heroes who have already come before. This Doctor Strange is not strange enough by half.

Doctor Strange opens in theaters all over Seattle tonight.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The city gone by

When I was younger, I didn’t really understand the appeal of Ben Katchor’s strip Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer. It has always been easy to see that Katchor is a talented artist — every panel is a beautifully composed portrait of urban life, every person in each panel has their own unique personality and history. But something about the strip resisted my attentions. I couldn’t find a character to identify with in Knipl, or any situations that spoke to me. I chalked it up as one of those rare strips — Prince Valiant is another — that is clearly of high quality, but which never really grabbed my attention.

Drawn & Quarterly just reissued the first real Knipl graphic novel from Katchor. It’s titled Cheap Novelties, and it’s a beautiful book, designed to look like it’s been wrapped in old newsprint, with the strips reproduced in a larger-than-life format. I thought I’d give it another try, as I’d done on multiple occasions over the years, just to make sure Katchor’s work still didn’t work for me.

Every once in a while, a reading life suddenly shifts dramatically, and a once-impenetrable work of art instantly melds with your subconscious. That’s what reading Cheap Novelties was like for me. From the very first page, I immediately understood the point of the Knipl strip, and of Katchor’s work. I eagerly read Cheap Novelties and found myself wanting to reinvestigate all of Katchor’s books.

The thing I had never quite understood about Katchor’s strip is that the city is the main character. Every page in Cheap Novelties is about some strange aspect of city life: a failing chain of flophouses, the diminished prominence of kosher slaughterhouses, the variety of paperweights used to hold down newspapers at newsstands. They’re little tributes to disappearing aspects of city life, some real and some fictional.

Katchor works at the boundaries of nostalgia and the black hole of memory created when something disappears from our shared experience. I’ve heard plenty of people reminisce fondly about the simple and immobile analog pleasure of landlines, for example, but very few people can remember the satisfying heft of carrying a desktop phone in their hands, or the weird, voyeuristic frustration of sharing a party line with their talkative neighbors. You don’t long for the disappearing city that Katchor documents in Cheap Novelties, exactly, but you do want to acknowledge it, to pay it tribute somehow by bearing witness.

In one strip, a movie theater removes its large marquee and replaces it with a smaller, more stylish sign, we are informed, “in an effort to look modern,” and “to save on electricity,” and “to be taken seriously,” and “to be tasteful,” and “to improve the block.” Our hero, eager to watch a film, walks right by the marquee-less movie theater without noticing it. “I thought it was around here…must be farther,” he mutters to himself. “Maybe those lights in the distance.” The name of the theater (The Bosporus) and the film (An Autopsy for Two) are just extra punchlines on top of the poignant vignette.

Cheap Novelties doesn’t aspire to make cities great again, and it’s not interested in wallowing in the past, or whitewashing history into something wholly admirable. But in every strip, Katchor is throwing a wake for some quotidian urban object or another, admiring them for the purpose that they served, even as he acknowledges that the world has moved on. If you’ve never appreciated the appeal of Katchor’s work, I urge you to give Cheap Novelties a try. Katchor admires and celebrates a city that has suddenly become irrelevant, and his work has a way of suddenly finding a new relevance when you’re ready to see it.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Vigilante justice

Unlike a lot of male superhero comics readers of my generation, I’ve never been a fan of the Punisher. I always preferred my superheroes to be aspirational. Murdering criminals in the street is something that only criminals do. The Punisher, to me, has always demonstrated the ugly, conservative side of superheroes, where the bad guys are an other—monstrous, irredeemable, worthy of nothing but scorn.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s new comic Kill or Be Killed is a series about a vigilante who kills criminals, but it’s not a Punisher-style glorification of the genre. Instead, they smartly rub the Punisher up against Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver, providing a more realistic perspective on the kind of person who decides they should be able to wield the power of life or death.

In the third issue of Kill or Be Killed, the protagonist, a young man named Dylan who is haunted by visions of demons, has killed his first criminal. Dylan believes that he’s made a deal with the devil — that if he doesn’t take a life, he will die — and so he chooses a criminal whose crimes have gone unpunished as his victim.

Dylan is about as unreliable a narrator as you can find in modern comics, and his narration pulls the reader in uncomfortably close. It’s like being pinned in on the bus by someone who insists on sharing their unpleasant worldview with you. Here, Dylan revels in his first kill:

It was almost like I’d peeled away a layer from the world, and I was more now… More than other people…. Last night, before I fired that gun, it felt too powerful in my hand. Like it was going to fly out of my grip or explode when I pulled the trigger. But now I don’t feel that way. I’m not so weak and full of doubt anymore.

Dylan spends much of the third issue with a young woman named Kira, trying to seduce her away from her boyfriend even as he revels in his newfound power. The reader can’t help but want to tell Kira to run; unlike series like The Punisher with muddled morals, there’s never a second of doubt in a reader’s mind that Dylan is anything but a danger to everyone around him.

Brubaker and Phillips have been making comics together for a long time now, and Kill or Be Killed is a work of supreme confidence. The comic feels dense, like a chapter of a novel, but Phillips still has plenty of opportunities to show off his hyper-detailed artwork. It’s rare to find a writer and artist who have achieved this kind of a tight symbiosis, who bring out the best in each others’ work on every single page.

And colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser’s palette for the book is another subtle nudge into Dylan’s decaying mind: every person looks a little bit grey, like they’re sick, or rotting from the inside. Only a few flourishes like the red of Kyra’s hair breaks the monotony of Dylan’s universe, and the few threats of violence in this issue pop out with bright colors. Forget the opportunities for love, or the distraction of sex — the violence, the promise of murder, is the only thing that brings Dylan, however momentarily, to life. He’s a sick, violent man who looks at the world and sees something as sick and violent as he is. Worse, he believes he’s the only one who can do something about it. This story cannot have a happy ending.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Doom, again

Sometimes you just fall in love with an artist’s work at first sight. That was what it was like for me reading the first issue of DC’s new Doom Patrol, which was published last week. I don’t know where Nick Derington comes from, but that two-page spread he drew that opens the issue, with a long, narrow panel of protagonist Casey Brinke driving an ambulance, is this kind of a moment for me. Derington has everything I love in an artist: simple lines, fine details, expressive facial expressions. This is the same kind of feeling that hit me when I first saw Marcos Martin’s art, for instance: pure love.

Derington’s art is beautifully complimented by Tamra Bonvillain’s coloring, which straddles the line between digital realism and gaudy comic book fluorescence. Together, you get the sense they could illustrate anything. And so they do: alien worlds, the back rooms where ambulance drivers wait for the next distress call, cramped apartments, heavenly throne rooms, and sterile hotel conference rooms. This is a comic book that charms you with the turn of every page.

I wish I could say the same for Gerard Way’s script. Way, the rock and roll singer who wowed comics fans with his weird superhero series Umbrella Academy, is launching a new weird adult imprint for DC Comics called Young Animal, of which Doom Patrol is the flagship title. And several of the new characters that Way introduces in the book — Casey Brinke, a singing telegram girl from beyond the stars — are absolutely fascinating. But only part of this book is treading new ground.

In a text piece at the end of the issue, Way talks about his love for Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s Doom Patrol comic from the 1990s. While that Doom Patrol run was absolutely incredible — I recently re-read it and was happy to find that much of it holds up — some of the elements in this new Doom Patrol feel a bit too eager to retrace those steps. The beauty of Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol was that he took an old, unsettling superhero comic and transformed it into something new and unsettling. It was of its time, and it happily discarded elements of the past to build its own identity. If Way is unable to make something new here, his Doom Patrol could wind up being nothing more than a nostalgia act.

Comics is not hurting for nostalgia; in fact, nostalgia is what is holding comics back. And those terrific books that ran during the heyday of Vertigo Comics — Doom Patrol, Animal Man, Sandman — deserve more than nostalgia. The best homage Way could pay to Morrison’s run would be to ignore it, and to head in a different direction entirely.

Thursday Comics Hangover: They put a man on the moon

If you love books and you haven’t read cartoonist Tom Gauld’s terrific collection You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, you’re missing out. The book is packed with clever riffs on genre and famous authors, demonstrating Gauld’s deep reading life and obvious wit. He’s one of us, it announced to book nerds, and he’s not afraid to show it.

Gauld’s newest book, Mooncop, is totally different: it’s a single comics story, a(n admittedly slender) graphic novel that couldn’t be more rhythmically opposed to the compact gags of Jetpack. It’s the story of a police officer on the moon, years after a lunar colony’s glory days. Gauld takes his time with the story, eschewing the quick gags of Jetpack to draw many swaths of large silent panels to set the desolate scene. The humor in Mooncop is quieter, sadder, more humane.

And as a cartoonist, Gauld has never been stronger. The figures in Mooncop are still cartoony, with simplistic faces behind circular astronaut helmets and pipe-cleaner-bendy limbs. But the detail he packs into each panel is gorgeous: the empty landscape of the moon is made up of thousands of tiny wiggly lines, a sea of stone set against an indigo sky.

The title character in Mooncop, who for the sake of expediency I’ll just call Mooncop, is a hapless fellow, a lonely man who’s left to police the dwindling lunar population. Just about everyone else has moved back to earth. “Living on the moon,” an elderly woman muses to Mooncop, “Whatever were we thinking? It seems rather silly now.” Once the allure of the frontier has dissipated, it seems, the bulky helmets and space suits required to live on the moon aren’t worth all the trouble. But some people still fall for the romance of it all: Mooncop replies, “Not to me. I think what you did was wonderful.”

Mooncop rides around the lunar colony, helping people as best he can and cleaning up after the remains of the adventurous spirit that brought humanity to the moon. Even a museum tracking the history of space travel is moving back to earth because nobody on the moon cares anymore. Gauld does include a few great jokes, particularly involving a robot therapist that is woefully unequipped for its job, but they’re unhurried. He has the patience to allow them to show up when they’re good and ready.

It must be said that the last few pages of Mooncop seem telegraphed well in advance; anyone who’s read a melancholy comic or two will be able to predict where Gauld is going to end his story once the necessary elements are introduced to the narrative. But this isn’t a book that you read for a twist ending or a roller-coaster plot. It’s more of a character sketch, a tone poem.

Between Brexit and the rise of Trump, this is a very appropriate year for Mooncop. When faced with the future, whole populations are recoiling. That one small step for mankind seems to have been a step too far; we’d rather be down on earth, soaking in our familiar humid air, than experiencing new things or trying to embrace the future. It feels lonely out on the frontier these days.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Margaret Atwood's first comic, Angel Catbird, is not very good

Margaret Atwood deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature. She’s written some of the best books written in English over the last fifty years and her range far surpasses most of her American contemporaries, stretching from science fiction to literary fiction and back again. She’s an underrated poet. And she’s terrific on Twitter. So when Portland comics publisher Dark Horse announced that they would be publishing Atwood’s first comic, Angel Catbird, in the fall of 2016, I was understandably excited. The news that Angel Catbird would be drawn by Johnnie Christmas, and up-and-coming comics artist of the Image Comics series Sheltered, made the book sound even more appealing.

Now Angel Catbird is finally on the stands and, uh, well. Even one of the world’s best writers can’t be great at everything. The plot is standard superhero boilerplate: a scientist named Strig Feleedus is working on a miraculous “super-splicer serum” that will cure diseases by “replacing damaged genes with healthy ones.” Feleedus winds up in an accident that splices his genes with that of a cat and an owl, turning him into a human-bird-cat hybrid. Soon, with the help of a secret society of pun-obsessed half-cats, he’s fighting a human-rat hybrid who wants to take over the world or something.

This is not to say that Angel Catbird doesn’t have its moments. A few of the best jokes in the book demonstrate Murakami-level blending of non sequiturs with a painfully dry delivery. (To transform from his catbird form back to human, Feleedus thinks of a washing machine, because “you ever met a cat who likes washing machines?”) But those amusing moments of self-awareness are rare, and buried under metric tons of awkwardness. The love interest is a half-cat named Cate Leone who is in a band called Pussies in Boots who sings songs with lyrics like this: “You are my dish of cream…you are my catnip dream…you are my midnight scream, it’s true.”

In fact, most of Angel Catbird’s troubles are inside the word balloons. The dialogue is wooden and borderline moronic. On the very first page, Feleedus offers a wall of exposition to his housecat:

Don’t want your buddy to be late for his new job! Seeing as I was head-hunted and all—for a top secret project! Very important! I know you don’t like it, but someone’s gotta pay for the cat food!

It’s so clunky and dumb and arrhythmic that it almost feels like an aesthetic attempt toward purposeful artificiality, like the on-the-nose dialogue in a Hal Hartley film. But there’s nothing under the surface to discover, no deeper meaning to the stilted dialogue. It’s just…really bad comics dialogue.

Here’s the villain after he causes the accident that will eventually lead to Angel Catbird’s creation: “Exit Feleedus! My digitally controlled rat slave was the perfect lure! I’ve destroyed the only sample! Tomorrow I’ll grab the formula off his computer! And enter the age of the rat!” So many exclamation points! It's hard to believe an editor allowed this to happen! If the book was even edited at all!

For a few pages, I tricked myself into thinking that perhaps Atwood was writing Angel Catbird for young audiences; the bad dialogue wouldn’t be excusable if that were the case—kids deserve good writing, too—but it would at least be understandable in the context of a clueless adult talking down to kids. But there are too many sex jokes in Angel Catbird for the book to be intended for very young audiences; in the end, I have no idea who this book is supposed to be for, aside from indiscriminate Atwood fans.

At times, and if you look at it from a certain angle, you can see a sort of cheeky old-school comics aura around Angel Catbird. Atwood occasionally sprinkles trivia about cat and songbird wellness throughout the book, which brings to mind the science trivia that used to appear in silver age Flash comics as “Flash Facts.” But if that is, in fact, Atwood’s goal then she’s embracing the wrong traits of old comics — the atrocious dialogue and thought balloons, the facile motivations — and ignoring the vitality that made those books so compelling. In a year that’s seen some excellent mainstream writers successfully make the leap to the world of comics (Ta-Nehisi Coates, William Gibson) Atwood’s first venture into comics is a fairly spectacular failure.