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Thursday Comics Hangover: Wherever you go, there you are

Short Run cofounder Eroyn Franklin's latest comic, Vantage #3, comes in a triangular envelope that is illustrated to look like a yurt. Inside the envelope, Franklin explains that this issue of Vantage is a record of her time at a monthlong residence at Caldera Arts in Oregon.

Franklin hiked a lot in her time at Caldera, and during those hikes she would stop and look straight ahead, and then at the ground beneath her. Vantage captures those two views in a beautiful little triangular minicomic that the reader can unfold and read in several different ways.

As a viewer, you have a choice. You can pull back the corners of each page to unveil a tableau that Franklin witnessed — a creek in a densely wooded area, or a waterfall, or a crater lake. Or you can leave the book in a kind of free-standing Christmas tree shape, which Franklin calls "comic sculpture."

No matter how you choose to read Vantage, Franklin's detailed black-and-white illustrations will move you. The conceit of combining a panoramic view with a close-up of the ground beneath her feet — the land ahead, the land below — is especially moving. Who hasn't been surprised by the beauty of nature, only to look down to make sure they're still connected to the earth?

With no words on the actual comic, Franklin manages to portray one of the most complex joys of nature. Even the loftiest tree still has a complex system of roots to keep it connected to the dirt below. Amateur hikers might value those vistas over the ground underfoot, but they're missing the point. There's just as much complexity — and beauty — under our feet as there is in front of our faces. It's all one piece.

Thursday Comics Hangover: By the time I get to Arizona

Monthly serialized comics are a relatively fast-moving medium. If a team on a book is really humming, they can create a title and get it on the stands in a matter of months. That seems to be the case with Border Town, a new Vertigo title whose first issue was just published yesterday. Written by Eric M. Esquivel and illustrated by Ramon Villalobos, Border Town feels as current as the day's headlines — for better and for worse.

Pretty much every page of Border Town references some aspect or another of the Trump Administration. The first page features a bunch of xenophobic white Arizonans firing machine guns into the air and shouting "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, MOTHERFUCKER!" But in Border Town, current events are pumped up and made into monsters and paraded through the streets. The town of Devil's Fork, Arizona is being haunted by modern American specters: a white woman is terrified by a figure that looks like a black teen, a man runs from a green-skinned ICE agent, someone else recoils from a giant "tiki-torch Nazi" with sharp teeth roaming the streets. It's the American nightmare in a Halloween mask — or maybe with the mask removed.

None of this relevancy would matter if the comic was ugly. But Villalobos makes reading Border Town a pleasure. He's from the Geoff Darrow school of comics art — the noodly, hyper-detailed work that rewards repeat viewing. (The first issue features cameos from Sandman and an especially beloved Superman story.) And colorist Tamra Bonvillain is doing some stunning work here — the color pallette of the book tracks a single day, from night to dawn to noon to dusk to night. The light in Arizona glows warmly, but all those oranges and reds and blues could just as easily represent a bruise.

It remains to be seen if the plot of Border Town will rise above some pretty standard "there is a pierced vale between this world and the next" supernatural potboiler drivel, but the quality of the art in the book, and the cleverness with which the creative team addresses contemporary topics, will keep me coming back regardless.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Won't you take me to Poochytown?

Jim Woodring isn't just creating a new world in his wordless Frank series of comics — he's designing an entirely new vocabulary. The Frank comics take place in the Unifactor, a densely illustrated cartoon world with its own laws and distinctive life forms. The main character is Frank, a generic cartoon character (Is he a cat? A mouse? Why is his face so...scrotal?) who comes across as a Chaplinesque innocent — albeit one with a vicious mean streak.

Every new Frank book changes the Unifactor in some way or another, adding a new element to the formula and playing out the scenario to see what happens. In the last book, Fran, Frank met up with a feminine version of himself, and the resulting interactions nearly destroyed the Unifactor.

In Woodring's latest volume, Poochytown, Frank's sort-of pets Pushpaw and Pupshaw climb into a higher plane created by a deranged musical instrument. Without his companions, Frank becomes lonely and eventually befriends his longtime enemy, the unsophisticated and hideous Manhog. The adventure involves a horse that chews off Frank's limbs, a visit to a location that resembles Woodring's studio, an out-of-body experience inspired by someone battering their head against a locked door, and one of the most heartbreaking emotional turns in the series thus far.

It's possible to read the Frank books as the comics version of silent movies — Woodring decorates all the stories with slapstick and visual gags and amusing side-quests — but they are seething just underneath that cartoony surface. Woodring is exploring primal concepts like religion and consciousness and community.

And while the surface elements of the Frank comics are just as beautiful as ever (Poochytown features some of the most breathtakingly intricate pages of Woodring's career, which is really saying something,) that deeper existential level feels as though it's growing more frenetic with every new volume. Poochytown enjoys the same moseying pace as the rest of Woodring's stories, but the inquiries he's making here on a philosophical level feel as dark and cutting as anything he's ever written.

No prior familiarity with Woodring's work is necessary to enjoy Poochytown, but after reading the book you might feel a certain anxiety roiling deep inside. That's not a mistake. More than any literary novel I've ever read, Woodring's Frank comics accurately portray the stresses and disappointments and horrifying wonder of what it is to be alive. And as being alive becomes more and more terrifying in the early part of the 21st century, Woodring's art reflects that terror right back at the reader.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The cartooning librarian

To a lot of bookish nerds out there, Colleen Frakes is living the dream: she's a librarian who draws comics in her spare time. And while Frakes is always very present in her work — seriously, read her memoir Prison Island — I've rarely seen her discuss her bookish life in her work. I've always wanted to read that book.

So when I was browsing the local cartoonist shelf at Phoenix Comics recently and I found a mini comic by Frakes titled Never Enough Books: Comics on a Library Life, I didn't hesitate for a second. I bought the book and read it immediately. (To be clear, Never Enough Books is only new to me; the indicia says it was first published in fall of last year.)

Never Enough Books is a collection of short autobiographical essays in comics from explaining Frakes's lifelong love affair with books. From her childhood as a self-described "'spend every recess in the library' type indoor kid" to her first librarian position at the Center for Cartoon Studies, Frakes explains what books have given her — and done to her.

If you grew up as a bookish nerd, you'll see yourself in these pages. Frakes is a genial host who romanticizes books while keeping her own mildly misanthropic tendencies in full focus. No, books can't cure everything. Yes, books do make everything better.

My one quibble with Never Enough Books is that it feels like a 90-page graphic novel crammed into a 12-page mini comic. I'd love to read a whole comic autobiography about becoming a librarian — perhaps with interesting moments in library history interspersed in the personal narrative. So far as I know, no cartoonist has ever made a book like that. The world is ready for the comics version of Nancy Pearl, and Frakes couldn't be more suited for that position if she were engineered in a laboratory.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Pearl, with irritation

Brian Michael Bendis's creator-owned comics are often very strong, but they're also often plagued with extensive publication delays that leave audiences annoyed. (What's up, Scarlet? It's remarkable that a writer as prolific as Bendis — he often juggles four monthly titles, in addition to special projects and a teaching gig — falls down on the job as much as he does.

The shame of it is, these books are usually his best work. Scarlet, in particular, started out as a great Occupy-themed commentary on income inequality. Then it was delayed so long that it felt like a timely statement on police shootings. And who knows how many other hot-button issues it will glide by on its glacial pace to completion?

Honestly, I wish I didn't have to begin this column with a huge asterisk, but Bendis has failed so consistently to finish what he starts with his creator-owned property that buyers should beware.

So with all that in mind, I like the first issue of Bendis's new creator-owned book with Michael Gaydos, Pearl. It's the story of a gifted young tattoo artist who accidentally becomes the pawn in a seedy underworld power play. The book opens in a San Francisco food truck parking lot, when a young man notices the gorgeous spider tattoo on Pearl's wrist. Violence ensues soon after.

It's pretty obvious that the book is going to be an investigation of tattoo culture. And it's also obvious that the creators have done their research; the credits list Diego Martin as "tattoo designer." This seems like a natural match with comics, which is the only medium that can really engage in a conversation with tattoo artistry.

Gaydos's art is becoming more and more minimalist as the years continue. He's one of those cartoonists who can relay a complex emotion — say, arousal combined with wariness — in something like five lines. And in Pearl, he's playing with color in some very interesting ways. When the food truck is attacked by gun-wielding mobsters on motorcycles, the book's whole color palette shifts from a slick damp-city-at-night sheen to a day-glow mix of sickly greens and muddy reds, with bits of tattoo flash added in the margins for additional emotional intensity.

As perfectly as the coloring captures the emotional intensity of that sequence, I do wish that Gaydos had been a little more specific in his action sequences, though. In the end, I have no idea who got shot by whom, aside from the main characters. Did everyone else die? How many people were involved? It's very unclear.

For those of you who take a chance on Pearl, it's very likely that you'll enjoy what you read. Even if the plot doesn't advance very far by the end of the issue, Gaydos's artistry alone is very gawk-worthy. But will there be a Pearl issue # 2 on comic shop shelves before we all die in a Trump-inspired nuclear holocaust in the late summer of 2020? I can't confidently place a bet either way.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Two number 2s

Halt and Catch Fire creator and showrunner Christopher Cantwell has a new comic called She Could Fly. The story begins in very familiar territory for a comic — in a world like our own, a young woman gains the power of flight — but the premise immediately goes south when the woman explodes in midair. Nobody knows who she is or how she could fly or why she exploded. Internet conspiracy theories sprout overnight like so many blackberry bushes.

Luna, the star of She Could Fly, is obsessed with the flying woman. In the second issue of the book, which came out yesterday, Luna's guidance counselor says "I want you to give this flying woman a rest." Luna doesn't listen to her — and for some reason, the guidance counselor has the head of a cat and a human body.

Luna, it seems, is hallucinating. She imagines demons attacking her. She imagines becoming a demon (sample dialogue: "I AM EVIL! I AM EVIL! I AM EVIL! I AM EVIL!") and she keeps digging deeper into the story of the flying woman. Meanwhile, a moustachioed rogue agent is also looking for the truth. The up-and-coming cartoonist Martin Morazzo renders Luna's reality with a high level of detail, making it even harder to tell the difference between what's real and what's fictional in Luna's world. Halfway through She Could Fly, I can't tell you what the book's about. But I can tell you that it's going somewhere interesting.

Speaking of second issues, the second issue of Chew artist Rob Guillory's new book Farmhand was published yesterday. Where She Could Fly continues to complicate the psychological layering of the series by obfuscating the narrative, Farmhand introduces characters and tensions with a refreshing directness.

Farmhand is the ultimate body horror comic: it's about a scientist who figures out how to grow new human body parts on trees. The technology, at first, seems like a godsend. In the second issue, a disfigured woman grafts a plant-based nose onto her face. But everything is more than a little creepy: a bush full of human hands isn't exactly a comforting image.

Guillory is setting up Farmhand to be a drama between an estranged son and his father. (The family tree jokes write themselves.) But there's also some fascinating depictions of addiction and recovery, as well as more than a little economic anxiety. It's the details here that make Farmhand so enjoyable. Even though Guillory is great at getting to the point in a hurry, he understands that we have to take the long way around a story every now and again.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Superman runs down the clock

We are now halfway through Doomsday Clock, the 12-issue Watchmen...sequel?...written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Gary Frank, and I still have no idea what to think of it. Is it fan fiction? Is it an earnest attempt at a sequel? Is it supposed to be funny?

It would be easier to tell if Doomsday Clock had a consistent tone. This is a book that completely misunderstands Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's postmodern riffs on superheroes by reveling in their "coolness." The most recent issue features a Watchmen character massacring DC super villains in a scene that is clearly supposed to impress readers with its badassness. Previous issues featured a resurrection from the dead that is just as cheesy as a plot twist you'd find in one of the old cliffhanger serial films Ozymandias mocked at the end of Watchmen.

In the end, of course, it doesn't matter. Watchmen will still be there, long after Doomsday Clock is forgotten. And Watchmen isn't even as good as you remembered it, anyway. But the fact that it's taken six issues at $4.99 a pop to get exactly nowhere in the story is downright criminal.

"I believe in the power of these icons. I believe in the power of hope, and optimism," Johns told SyFy when Doomsday Clock was announced. That doesn't reflect anything I've seen in the first six issues of Doomsday Clock.

Surprisingly, another DC Comic is honoring exactly those values. When writer Brian Michael Bendis jumped ship to DC after umpteen years of exclusivity at Marvel Comics, readers expected Bendis would take on a street-level hero like Batman as his first project. Instead, he decided to write Superman. And, honestly, Bendis's Superman is exactly what the character should be: powerful, optimistic, friendly, and warm.

My one regret is that Bendis launched his time on Superman with a plot that involves yet another mysterious character from Krypton's past. As I've written before, the sci-fi trappings of Superman are the least interesting part of the character. Nobody has ever given a shit about Krypton.

People read Superman comics for the same reason they watch Mr. Rogers: they want to believe in a morally good universe, one in which right triumphs over wrong because it is right, not because it's strongest. If Bendis can maintain the essential decency of the character in months to come while telling stories that get to the heart of Superman's appeal, odds are good we'll be remembering Bendis's Superman run long after the mess that is Doomsday Clock has faded from our memory.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Done in one

You'll rarely encounter a truly conclusive conclusion in superhero fiction. Everything is endlessly serialized, presumably under the assumption that a too-pat ending will inspire readers to drop off a title. All this inconclusiveness gets tiring.

And in an age in which every superhero story is collected in a trade paperback, comics have gotten even more endless. Decades ago, when a creator was late with a title, editors would reach into their back catalogs and pull out a one-shot story — meaning one with a beginning, a middle, and an end — they could plug into the scheduling hole. Often, these stories served as training wheels for up-and-coming talent, and many of them were...well, not good.

But every once in a while, a good one-shot story gets to the heart of a superhero, explaining in a kind of mission statement why the character matters and providing a blueprint for creative teams for years to come. This week, DC Comics published one of those rare comics, in Wonder Woman issue 51.

The basic premise is not original: Wonder Woman sends a criminal to prison, and then Wonder Woman continues to visit the prisoner over the span of months and years. At first, the prisoner is aggressive. Over time, their relationship gets more complicated. Author Steve Orlando isn't reinventing the wheel, here.

But unpredictability is not the charm of the story. Orlando's script is warm and patient, and artist Laura Braga deftly straddles the line between superhero comics and the expressive character work. You know how it's going to end, but you can't wait to get there.

Way too often, Wonder Woman is presented as nothing more than the female version of Superman, or a generic powerful hero who happens to be a woman. Braga and Orlando in one issue manage to explain what it is that makes Wonder Woman a unique character, and to establish a precedent for creators in the future. She doesn't just vanquish crime; she rehabilitates criminals. Hopefully, Seattle author G. Willow Wilson, who recently was announced as the new writer on Wonder Woman, will expand on the themes of this story, to give a new purpose to the never-ending adventures of Wonder Woman.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The circle and the rectangle

I've written a few times before about my love for the comics magazine Coin-Op, which is written and drawn and colored and designed and everything-else-d by brother-sister cartooning team Peter and Maria Hoey.

You might have had a hard time tracking down an issue of Coin-Op the last few times I wrote about it; the series was only available at a few indie shops or at special occasions attended by the Hoeys, like the Short Run Festival. Now, though, you're out of excuses: you can pick up or order a hefty collection of the Hoey siblings' comics at any bookstore in the country. Published by Top Shelf Productions, Coin-Op Comics Anthology: 1997 - 2017 is a sharp-looking hardcover collection of the first five Coin-Op books, as well as earlier Hoey comics that appeared in places like Blab! Magazine.

Coin-Op comics are fundamentally built out of two distinct shapes. First is the squat rectangle of the page. All the Hoeys' strips are laid out in horizontal format, giving each page a sprawling sense for those who are accustomed to the vertical orientation of most modern comics.

The second, and maybe most important, shape is the circle. (I'm hardly the first person to notice this: "The characteristic icon of Coin-Op is the perfect circle," writes Josh O'Neill in the introduction to the book.)The Hoeys evoke perfectly rendered circles in almost all their work, from a crisp white tabletop to the chaos of a river flooding a nondescript office in overlapping circular panels. Their characters run in circles. In some instances, their heads are perfect circles. The moon hangs in the sky like a shiny quarter. A man examines a diamond ring.

All of the comics in Coin-Op riff on variations of those two shapes: the broad expanse of a rectangle and the unending loops of a circle. A movie screen and a spinning jazz record. The Hoeys are history buffs, drawing strips that riff on Vertigo and the life of the director of Rebel Without a Cause. Other strips discuss the life and legacy of jazz greats like Herbie Hancock and Django Reinhardt.

My favorite part of Coin-Op is when the Hoeys test the limits of comics as a storytelling medium. One strip breaks a parade accident down into a string of interconnected narratives, each given its own progression of individual panels that form part of a greater whole. A wordless strip surveys a crime wave committed by a pigeon. The most surreal strips play out in banal cubicles — beige offices so bland that the reality of the comic strip seems to fold in on itself as an act of rebellion against the boredom of ordinary life.

If, like me, you believe the storytelling range of comics has yet to be fully explored, the Coin-Op anthology is for you. These comics are dancing on the razor's edge between strict formalism and chaotic play. That's where the most interesting stuff always happens.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The hero comics deserves

For many years, cartoonist Steve Ditko created and sold comics outside the traditional publishing system. With the assistance of comics editor Robin Snyder, Ditko sold his comics directly to the public through Kickstarter.

I've supported several of these Kickstarted books, and in the list of backers located on the inside back cover you could often find the familiar names of comics creators. The most recent Ditko comic to arrive in my mailbox this spring, The Hero, included cartoonist Stephen Bissette and comics writer Tom DeFalco — and other titles have included famous backers like Neil Gaiman.

I often thought of these books as a kind of community retirement plan for Ditko, who passed away last week at the age of 90. Marvel didn't compensate him nearly what it should have for his work in the creation of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, and Ditko slowly stopped working for most traditional comics publishers for reasons that he always kept private. He seemed to be in need of assistance, and he was certainly not the kind of person to accept charity. So backing comics like The Hero were a way to thank Ditko for all his work, and to show him that we still loved him.

Most of Ditko's Kickstarted comics were uneven collections of text pages written by Snyder or Ditko or a combination of the two, and short comics written and drawn by Ditko. The comics tended to be collections from Ditko's archives; in The Hero, there's a comic about a hero called Killjoy that was originally illustrated in 1988.

Ditko's Objectivism is on full display in The Hero. In the Killjoy story, some civic leaders at the "Foundation to Protect the Guilty from Justice" are weeping giant tears into puddles on the floor. A wealthy-looking man named Mr. Hart goes on a tremendous, tear-soaked rant that sounds like a conservative's view of what a liberal criminal justice system would sound like:

Wah! It's unjust! Killjoy's ruining the careers of hard working criminals! They have rights! We have to help them...raise bail...hire lawyers...demand crime be made legitimate!...Wah! It's cruel! When criminals can't practise their profession! Their victims never cooperate and now this Killjoy! It's too much for decent men to take! Sob! Criminals are as law-biding as non-criminals.

Then the Foundation goes no a protest march, with signs reading: "Our first concern is for the guilty," "We need a union for hard working criminals," "For every guilty victim, there is an innocent criminal."

Of course Mr. Hart is mugged by criminals and he makes excuses for them even as they smash the teeth out his face. And of course Killjoy crushes the criminal syndicate (which includes a man dressed like Robin Hood, a coal miner, a gorilla, a lion wearing a domino mask, and a python.) It's exactly as philosophically simple-minded as you'd expect a comic from one of Ayn Rand's most devoted acolytes to be.

But there's a lot of fun, too, including a short comic about a hero called Mr. Quiver, a big-bellied bald man who eats Jello and defeats the bad guys by absorbing their punches and jiggling them back at them. Originally drawn in 1985, the strip seems like an early pass at Speedball, the bouncing boy superhero Ditko would create for Marvel a few years later.

But the title story in The Hero is the true gem. Drawn in 2009, it's Ditko's superhero work reduced to its purest form. It begins with a splash page of a man in a garish wavy-lined costume with a giant "V" on his chest. He carries a large club, and he announces, "I'm the Villain! Initiation of force, might, is good, right, just! No one dares oppose me!"

Of course, then a man in a suit with a giant "H" emblazoned on it shows up. The Villain identifies this man as "The Hero," but The Hero doesn't talk in the course of the story. He just laughs: "HA HA HA HA." Meanwhile, in the background, a large group of people — presumably the general public — mocks The Hero and praises The Villain.

The Villain and The Hero get in a fistfight for a couple of silent pages, and then The Hero knocks The Villain out cold, smacking him into a pile of garbage and rats. Triumphant, The Hero then seems to, as best I can tell, juggle a bunch of cylindrical cacti wearing cowboy hats in the final panel while the general public grumbles that the fight was rigged.

The art in this comic is beyond loose, but it it distinctly Ditko. It feels like every line has to be there, that Ditko willed it to be. On a pure black and white page, his certainty is a beautiful thing to behold.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The quiz kid raises a family

Michael Kupperman has for years been producing very funny comics for outlets including the New Yorker and McSweeney's. His work has been published in books from Fantagraphics and HarperCollins. But just when you think you've got the cartoonist figured out, he sweeps your legs out from under you: Kupperman's new memoir about his relationship with his father, All the Answers, is something special.

Decades before Michael was born, Joel Kupperman was an early television star, a quiz show celebrity whose talent — the ability to quickly and accurately perform complex math in his head — made him a beloved figure. Like most early fame, Joel's celebrity washed away. And as an adult, he refused to discuss his years as a quiz kid.

Kupperman takes great care to redefine his comics vocabulary in All the Answers. The art is very obviously still his, but the rhythm of the book is different — slower, simpler, more accessible. That's not to say that he's slumming at all: though Kupperman often only relies on two panels per page here, the relationships between those panels can be very complex.

A portrait of Henry Ford, for example, stares out at the readers from in front of a busy background that resembles TV static. The "camera" pulls back further to reveal that Ford is a portrait on a wall. The wallpaper is comprised of hundreds of thin, dense lines. Standing in front of the Ford drawing in the second panel is Adolf Hitler. It's an obvious representation of how Ford's anti-Semitism influenced world leaders like Hitler, but those clashing backgrounds also tell a thematic story about chaos and control, about personality and its influences.

Kupperman uses that kind of transition often, particularly when dealing with his relationship with Joel. The perspective in a panel will back up a step or two between panels, to illustrate the distance between Joel and Michael, and the distance between the past and the present.

As Joel ages, he grows more and more bitter about his childhood experiences. Some of that rage eventually seeps into Michael, and All the Answers feels like an attempt to harness that anger, to keep it from infecting a whole new generation.

Kupperman's self-portrait in this book is a fascinating choice: the whorls of his hair are visually appealing, and the clean bold lines of his face have an attractive curve to them. He looks friendly, except for the eyes. Kupperman draws his own eyes as tight little circles that are too small for his face. They don't wink or tense or widen. They could almost be buttons sewn on top of his eyelids, and they give him a kind of impenetrability. It's hard to emote when you don't have access to the range of emotions that a pair of expressive eyes can provide.

I think with those eyes, Kupperman is establishing a distance between himself and the reader — the same way his own father held himself back from being too emotional with his son. This could be off-putting for some readers, who might believe that the point of a memoir is to be as emotionally open as possible.

But really those immobile eyes are essential to the story: if Kupperman were as forthcoming with the reader as other confessional memoir writers, the story wouldn't make sense. Kupperman knows how to keep his audience at bay when he needs to. It creates the same aura of mystery that his father enjoyed for much of his life.

Those looking for closure will likely not enjoy All the Answers. But for everyone else — for all the people who love books about complicated relationships between parents and children, like Fun Home or The Glass Castle, All the Answers is a balm. Though it's drawn in lines so big and clear that it could practically be a coloring book, Kupperman embraces fine details and nuance in his story.

This is the kind of book that will live in your head for years. You might just find, one bleary morning after too many dreams of dead relatives, that you look in the mirror while brushing your teeth only to see Kupperman's inexpressive cartoon eyes staring back at you. Those eyes might not smile or widen, but they can see everything.

Thursday Comics Hangover: The death of Kill or Be Killed

If you just glance at him, Dylan — the main character of Kill or Be Killed — looks like a classic comic protagonist, a brown-haired generic white guy like Peter Parker. But Sean Phillips is a subtle artist, and at certain angles Dylan's presentation falls apart. His bangs just hang limply in his face. His mouth falls open and he stands slack-jawed a lot. His posture is bad.

Ed Brubaker, the writer of Kill or Be Killed, said that the series is intended in part as an homage to 1970s Spider-Man comics, and the cover of issue #20, which was published yesterday, is a direct tribute to one of the most famous Spider-Man covers of all time. But the series isn't about a superhero: Dylan is a spree killer, an unhinged vigilante who, at the behest of a demon who may or may not be real, murders anyone he deems as guilty. We don't know how much of the story is real, or how much we should trust Dylan. In practice, Kill or Be Killed is a closer relation to Taxi Driver than to any Marvel Comic.

This twentieth issue marks the end of (at least this iteration of) Kill or Be Killed, and the book is definitely worth picking up in a collected edition. This is, far and away, my favorite of Phillps and Brubaker's many collaborations — a riveting cross between Notes from Underground and The Punisher. (Come to think of it, the misanthropic star of Dostoyevsky's novella could just as easily have gone vigilante himself: "I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. Criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot.")

Kill or Be Killed arrives at just the right time: fandom has, like the rest of the country, grown unhinged and entitled. They're having a hard time drawing a distinction between themselves and the heroes they admire. Dylan is, in many ways, a reflection of that self-regard: obsessed with a sci-fi/fantasy painting of his father's, Dylan decides he alone is the arbiter of the difference between right and wrong. He loathes all institutions and believes that justice is best delivered with extreme prejudice.

I can't say much about the last issue of Kill or Be Killed without ruining the story, but I can tell you that it is satisfying, in much the same way that the rest of the series is satisfying. It curves around your expectations and furiously resists any easy answers. Just when you think you've gotten your hands around the book, it slithers out of your grasp and starts nipping at your heels again.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Very good, Jeeves

Why isn't Roger Langridge one of the most popular cartoonists in the world? His cartoons are so lushly rendered that they demand repeated inspection, his stories are clear and funny and thoughtful. He can draw both a pratfall and an existential crisis — and even more impressively, he can make the pratfall incredibly sad and the existential crisis laugh-out-loud funny.

Langridge's best work, in my estimation, is Fred the Clown, a lovely little collection of short comic strips about a lonely clown, from Fantagraphics Books. It's full of poetry and music and tears and laughter. Everyone who loves comics should own a copy. And somehow, Langridge is still working in relative obscurity.

Last week Langridge published an entire comic book for free on his website. Even better, it's an adaptation of a public domain story titled "Leave It to Jeeves" by P.G. Wodehouse. (The original story is available here.)

"I've always wanted to do a P. G. Wodehouse graphic novel adaptation," Langridge writes in the post, "and the only way I know of of making that happen is to actually do a few pages and see whether I can get anyone interested in publishing some more." We should all lament the fact that we live in a universe in which publishers aren't tossing Langridge money to do whatever he wants to do, but we should be grateful, at least, that we get to read new work by Langridge for free.

And it turns out, obviously, that Wodehouse and Langridge are a delightful combination. The Wooster and Jeeves relationship works remarkably well in comics form, and Langridge gets some great comics history references across in a non-obtrusive way. And the reveal of Corky's painting in the story is a hilarious payoff that perfectly demonstrates why this story deserves to be adapted into a visual medium.

Look, I could go on, but the point is simple: Roger Langridge wants to do comics adaptations of Wodehouse novels. Someone needs to make sure this happens, please.

Thursday Comics Hangover: More than Crumbs

I'll admit, I'm not a huge fan of the jam comics made by the husband-and-wife team of Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Robert Crumb. The ironic cutesiness of those comics is nearly indiscernible from real cutesiness, and the juxtaposition of Crumb's formalist rigor next to Kominsky-Crumb's primitive illustrations is only good for a momentary thrill, and not a continued investigation. For a few years, Drawn Together, the collection of the married couple's collaborations, has been the only work of Kominsky-Crumb's in print.

Thankfully a new reissue of Kominsky-Crumb's solo comics, Love That Bunch, reminds us that she's a cartoonist in her own right, and not simply an extension of her husband's drawing hand. Bunch collects her early work from the 1970s and 80s, and it also includes a long new story, "My Very Own Dream House," that looks back on Kominsky-Crumb's childhood.

The act of simply flipping through Bunch can teach you a lot about Kominsky-Crumb's evolution as an artist. Her early work looks more like traditional comics, with smaller word balloons and more room for the art. But as you scan through the chronological progression, you can see words start to spread throughout the comic, like a mold outbreak on clean white tile. Eventually, Kominsky-Crumb's narration dominates every page, with up to six individual word balloons per panel. The drawings become smaller and smaller, focusing more on figures than backgrounds or settings.

But when you flip to "Dream House" at the end of the book, you can see Kominsky-Crumb's cartoons have come full circle: once again, she's allowing more room for her art to breathe, and she's not bombarding the reader with too much over-explanation. (One of my favorite panels is of Kominsky-Crumb's daughter, Sophia, vomiting while shouting "I HATE YOU, FRANCE!")

Kominsky-Crumb made her name with a kind of brutish honesty that at the time felt revolutionary. Not a lot of women were openly and frankly discussing sex and periods and body image issues when Kominsky-Crumb started out. And the fact that she illustrated these taboo stories with crude illustrations that didn't look traditionally beautiful only angered the establishment even more.

In retrospect, though, those early diary comics aren't really shocking at all. Looking back over four decades at the strips that originally had a kind of punk rock allure, they instead feel a little bit quaint. That's progress for you.

Instead, the strength of Love That Bunch lies not in striking moments but rather in the accrual of many such moments. It's a compelling and comprehensive account of what it was like to be a young woman at a very particular time, and it comes with its own meta-commentary about how Kominsky-Crumb feels about the work after nearly a half-century has passed.

If you asked me when I first read Kominsky-Crumb's comics in the 1980s whether I'd still be thinking about her work in 2018, I would've laughed at you. But these stories have aged well as a very personal document of a very strange moment in American history, while Robert Crumb's work has lost some relevance in my estimation. Who knows? Maybe in fifty years, young people will declare Kominsky-Crumb to be the real comics visionary in the relationship.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Truth, justice, and popping pimples

Supergirl is a great character at her base, but she's been through so many permutations that it's hard for new fans to figure out where to begin with her. In the 1990s, she was a shape-changing interdimensional life form who had an affair with Lex Luthor. In the early 2000s, she was a sexualized fanboy's wet dream. In the 1980s, she was a perky aerobics instructor type who sacrificed herself to save the universe.

You can find a few stories from every period of Supergirl's long career that might appeal to wider audiences, but what about her origin? What about Supergirl is unique? What book explains her place in the universe without using her relationship to Superman as the primary measurement?

That's where Supergirl: Being Super, a new paperback collection written by Mark Tamaki and illustrated by Joëlle Jones, comes in. Being Super is an origin comic that reimagines Supergirl's story in the framework of a contemporary young adult novel, complete with pimples, high school friendships, and a confident main character who struggles to find her place in the world.

Jones is one of the most gifted superhero artists at work today. Her Supergirl is dynamic and distinctive, a tall and occasionally gawky young woman who carries all her worries and her joys plainly on her face. She looks and carries herself like a high school student, unlike most of the recent incarnations of the character.

Tamaki fills in details to Supergirl's origin that other writers never bothered to consider. Her adopted father is gruff and more than a little controlling, but sweet deep down, like a cross between Ron Swanson and Pa Kent. Her friends are the kinds of good people that a superhero would want in her life: thoughtful and kind and inspirational. Poignant moments, like a kid sister reading a goodbye letter during a high school student's funeral, are moving without being maudlin. It's a fully-developed world, and the plot examines Supergirl as a decent character without making her unbelievable. (This is the best way to handle Super character, as I've written.)

That said, Being Super does fall into a few of the traps that have befallen Superman comics over the last few years. There's way too much time spent on Kryptonian culture and history, for one thing. Nobody cares about Krypton; Krypton is useful only as the reason for Superman and Supergirl's powers, and the less you dwell on it the better. And the plot is stretched a little too thin in the first two thirds of the book and jumbled up a little too thick in the last third.

But this is the best origin that Supergirl has ever gotten, and I hope Tamaki and Jones get to revisit this world sometime soon. Readers deserve a solid run on the character to consider as canon, and Being Super makes for a great start.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Spring has sprung

No Better Words is not a new comic. It’s not even a comic that I encountered this week. I bought Carolyn Nowak’s short poetry-and-lust comic a couple months ago, at the Strand in New York City, and I just happened to pick it up and read it this past week when it caught my eye.

Good lord.

It just so happens that No Better Words is the perfect comic to read at the time when spring is teetering over into the edge of a hot and sticky summer, when everything is blooming and singing and glowing from the inside out.

The story is simple: a young woman hails an Uber, and goes to a house party that has just ended. She has one goal in mind: a young man she can’t get out of her head. She finds him, and she throws herself at him. She’s there, put simply, to fuck.

On her way to the party, she concocts several metaphors to explain the sheer physical longing she feels — he’s a cold planet, but “cold like the other side of your pillow.” Or maybe he’s a maze of cloth, rustling in the breeze. Or maybe the metaphors are just a pretense her brain creates to distract her from the idea that she just really wants to get it on.

It's a rare pleasure to find a comic this purely horny. Nowak has colored No Better Words in pastel pinks and purples, and the subtle blush on the young woman’s cheeks say more than any of her hormone-fueled metaphors ever could.

If you’re young, or if you ever spent your youth in beer-soaked ragers hoping someone would come along and adore you the way you wanted to be adored, No Better Words is a fairy tale meant just for you. And if you look past the eager lips and the gauzy, semi-stupid stares, you’ll likely recognize the tragedy just nipping at the heels of all the yearning. It’s sexy because of that heartbreak, that emotional risk, not in spite of it.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Go climb Trash Mountain

Two days ago, former Seattle Weekly arts editor Kelton Sears made a very exciting announcement on Twitter:

Trash Mountain is now available to read for free at trashmountain.cool. It’s a GIF comic with an autoplay soundtrack, and it does contain some (highly cartoony) nudity, so you might not want to read it at work.

But you should definitely read it. This thing is beautiful: a blend of cartoons and comics and collage and photography. Our main character wakes up to find a stereotypical greedy CEO about to destroy his home for the sake of exploiting some natural resources.

The plot is incredibly simple — too simple, if I’m honest — but a comic like this is all about the journey, not the action. The sequence in which our protagonist tries to meditate on the surface of a gorgeous sunlit body of water only to be distracted by internal noise (a Facebook feed, a winking nude woman, a scrappy black cloud, a meta panel of him picturing himself picturing himself picturing himself) is a perfect example of why anyone should want to read a comic made entirely out of animated GIFs.

Trash Mountain takes a little getting used to: it’s hard at first to read a comic when every one of the panels moves of its own accord. But once you acclimate to the jittery rhythms of the book, the comic unfolds itself to you in a pleasantly soothing sort of way. The glitchy, trance-y soundtrack loops itself around and around again, and your eyes glide across the panels, like a babbling stream over rocks.

Ultimately, Trash Mountain is about finding your people, and fighting crass capitalism with tools of spirituality and authenticity. It’s a beautiful, strange book, an eternally moving handmade minicomic slapped up on the Worldwide Interwebbing, just waiting for its audience to come and find it. If you happen to be a Trash Mountain kind of person, this comic will sing to you in a language you never knew existed.

Thursday Comics Hangover: A Deadpool comic for people who hate Deadpool Comics

Last week I did something that I have never done before: I went into a comic book shop and I paid money for a pair of Deadpool comics. Even more embarrassing: I read them and I loved them.

Deadpool never really clicked for me. His breaking-the-fourth-wall schtick is rarely handled well and I like my superheroes to have moral codes. I don’t think the character represents an age of decadence in superhero comics or anything histrionic like that. I don’t begrudge Deadpool fans their hero. I just don’t think he’s funny or original. (And the Deadpool movie, whose sequel is in theaters tomorrow, seemed remarkably on-brand in that way: I didn’t think it was especially funny or smart, but it really clicked for certain audiences.)

But Marvel Comics is glutting comic shop shelves with Deadpool comics to cash in on the new movie, and one of the miniseries they’re publishing is titled You Are Deadpool. If you’re interested in playful experimentation in the comics medium, you’ll want to pick this one up — even if you’re not a Deadpool fan.

You Are Deadpool is a choose-your-own adventure comic. The way it works is this: every panel in the comic is numbered. Whenever Deadpool faces a dilemma, the reader can choose which way to go, and each decision sends them to a different panel. “If you’d like me to have a flashback,” Deadpool tells the reader in the first issue, “go to 72. Alternatively, if you’d rather get right into it, go to 66.” It’s not all fight-oriented; later in the series, readers get to choose whether Deadpool shares his emotions through painting (“go to 16”) or poetry (“go to 14.”)

There are more rules, too — “cool” violent actions increase Deadpool’s Badness Score, while crawling through tunnels adds to his Sadness Score. And readers can “play” combat in the book by rolling dice to determine the outcome of certain battles. But readers can also “cheat” and barrel through the book, flipping back and forth to see the outcomes of various actions.

The big difference between this Deadpool book and every other Deadpool comic is the writer, Al Ewing. Ewing has as close to a perfect record as any Marvel writer — he writes stories that reflect back on decades of Marvel history while also pushing forward into new concepts and, in this particular case, storytelling techniques.

But every comic is a collaboration, and Salva Espin’s artwork in issue 1 is a terrific complement to Ewing’s script: his art is clear and just cartoonish enough to sell the ludicrous premise. Paco Diaz’s art in issue two — in which Deadpool is zapped back in time to Marvel’s earliest days to riff on the Fantastic Four’s origin — is a little stiff for my tastes, although Diaz does do a pretty good riff on early Marvel art.

I’m a sucker for this kind of formal play, and I have to begrudgingly admit that Deadpool is exactly the right character for this kind of a story: his ability to address the reader directly helps guide novices through the book, and his unpredictable amoral tendencies make him a believable audience surrogate for every course of action.

You Are Deadpool hasn’t converted me to a hardcore Deadpool fan, but it has opened up my understanding of what the character is capable of doing in a story. Ewing’s excitement for the possibilities of the medium prove that old adage about how in the right hands there’s no such thing as a bad character. You Are Deadpool proves that Ewing’s hands are abler than just about anyone in mainstream superhero comics.

Thursday Comics Hangover: What he's fighting for

With a very few exceptions, superheroes have always been portrayed as defenders of the status quo. It's a superhero's job, at the end of the story, to return the world to something like the condition they found it in at the beginning of the story. On a very basic level, they're opposed to change and to protest and to evolution.

You can't help but feel bad for Jason Fisher, the jetpack-wielding superhero at the heart of screenwriter John Ridley's comic The American Way: Those Above and Those Below. Fisher is doing his best to save lives and serve the law. But as a Black man, Fisher is held to standards that white superheroes like Batman avoid. When Fisher catches an armed Baltimore radical in the first pages of the book, the Black residents of the neighborhood immediately label him a "sellout."

It only gets worse from there. Someone else calls Fisher "a traitor" and "a tool of the money class." And when a Black man calls him an "Uncle Tom," Fisher snaps back: "Read the book. He died protecting people. What the hell did you ever do?" Set in the 1970s, Those Above and Those Below is a deeply political story about revolutionaries and burnouts and everyone else who falls in between.

As you might expect from the writer of 12 Years a Slave, Ridley's script is taut and nuanced: you won't find a bunch of obnoxious 1970s references added in for unnecessary atmosphere. It's very obvious that America is being torn apart in this book, but Fisher doesn't have to yammer on about the Nixon Administration's excesses to convey the paranoia or the claustrophobia of the time. The art, by Georges Jeanty, is dense and detailed. I'd like to see a little more attention to facial expressions and physical differences between characters, but the action is clear and the storytelling is impeccable.

If you enjoy a good superhero story that doesn't shy away from the weird politics of the genre, you'll very likely enjoy Those Above and Those Below. But it's not the cynical, Frank Miller-style deconstruction of the genre you've come to expect from "adult" superhero stories, either. At the heart of the story, Fisher's decency shines through: he's someone who wants to help, and who doesn't shy away from the question of whether his help is wanted — or even needed. More superheroes should ask themselves that same question.

Thursday Comics Hangover: Some recommendations for Free Comic Book Day

This Saturday is Free Comic Book Day, and you should absolutely pick up some free comics. But as I say every year, if you regularly shop for comics at comics shops, Free Comic Book Day isn't free. These comics may be free for customers, but theystill cost money for comics shop owners to buy, so it is your responsibility as a comics reader to help the comics shop absorb the expenses of the free comics by buying a few comics of your own. I like to use the day to pick up some trade paperbacks I've failed to pick up over the course of the year, for instance.

Don't know which books to buy? Allow me to help! Here are some of my favorite recent paperbacks:

  • From local publisher Fantagraphics, I really dug the horror anthology Flayed Corpse, written by Josh Simmons and drawn by a host of other artists — many of whom live here in Seattle. And speaking of Seattle cartoonists, Ellen Forney's brand-new book Rock Steady is a heartfelt guide to staying calm and centered in moments of emotional crisis. (Forney will be reading and signing at the Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery on FCBD, so you can get an autographed copy for no extra charge.)