First Second is quietly becoming one of the most consistently enjoyable comics publishers in the industry. The publisher doesn't get a ton of attention in the mainstream press — possibly because it focuses primarily on young adult comics — but readers have taken notice, and librarians have fallen in love with their books. I've recently spent time with two First Second releases, and they're entirely delightful — fun, heartfelt examples of comics as a storytelling art form.
Jen Wang's The Prince and the Dressmaker is a fairy tale romance with a modern twist: a poor young woman wants nothing more than to design and create beautiful gowns. She's plucked from obscurity by a prince to create the dresses of her dreams, but the catch is that they're for the prince himself to wear.
Wang's handling of the prince's need to dress as a woman is note-perfect. It's not a curiosity, or a perversity; it's just who he is. And while he encounters adversity when he heads out on the town as Lady Crystallia, it doesn't really spoil anything to say that Prince is a fairy tale romance with happy endings for all. This is a gentle, kind-hearted love story about being who you are and loving someone else for who they are.
The cartooning in Prince is all about faces: the faces of gossiping society girls at the ball, the pining face of the prince, the worried face of the dressmaker. All the pointing fingers and swooping dresses and bolts of luxurious fabric on every page points to the expressive faces of the characters. Wang is adept at drawing fashion that inspires delighted sighs from her readers, but the real secret to the liveliness in her art is in the mooning eyes and the cocked heads of her characters.
Portland cartoonist Vera Brosgol got her start at the stop-motion animation company Laika, and her brand new memoir-ish comic Be Prepared speaks to those animation roots. The book, about a young Vera getting shipped off to a Russian-language camp for the summer, doesn't contain any of the splashy action sequences of, say, Kubo and the Two Strings, but when Vera wanders through the woods, you can feel her location in space: Brosgol seems to know where every last tree in Camp Orra is located. It feels as real and as solid as the park closest to your house.
Young Vera is a bit of an outcast; she's too young to identify with her adolescent tentmates, and she's too smart to fall for the phony camraderie of awkward friendmaking games. So she gets lonely and she worries that she'll never fit in anywhere.
Be Prepared, thankfully, doesn't suddenly transform Vera into a social butterfly, and it doesn't promise that every childhood hurt will magically heal. But it does promise that if you hang on long enough, things will get better — and that's just the message that kids need to hear.
While the big two comics publishers struggle to appeal to young adult readers with big-eyed cutesy versions of the same old superheroes, First Second is speaking to young readers on their own terms, and telling new twists on classic stories. Forget Archie comics — First Second's are the comics that will inspire future generations of cartoonists to pick up their pens and start doodling.
The Nancy strip has often been a bastion of anti-art. Ernie Bushmiller's original Nancy comics were always so vacant in plot and in ambition that they practically demanded readers to fill them with meaning. They looked so clean and neat and geometric that they appeared to be untouched by human hands, and the behavior in the strips bore no resemblance to real life. Nancy and her friend Sluggo didn't act like people. They acted like characters in comic strips. They went to soda fountains and hung around butcher shops. They said things that could only make sense if you were saying it to telegraph a punchline in a comedy bit.
The Nancy strip has always been a postmodern joke about comic strip jokes, a strange antiseptic world so generic that you wouldn't be surprised to find that Nancy's word balloon in the last panel of any given strip read "INSERT PUNCHLINE HERE." After Bushmiller passed away, artists like Jerry Scott and Guy Gilchrist tried to capture Bushmiller's odd sense of humor, but they mostly succeeded in creating a generic comic strip about a little girl who was kind of a dick and her weird dumb bald friend.
Jaimes, though, adds something new to the strip: a perspective, style, and voice. Most of Jaimes's strips so far have had to do with modern life. There's an awkward earbud joke, and a few jokes about social media. (In one self-referential panel, Jaimes intrudes to say that "Any questionable art from now on is because Nancy and Sluggo are using a Snapchat filter.") But the best of the strips trade on Nancy's long history of self-absorption. Nancy admits to Sluggo that her goal in life is "to be famous without having to work," for instance.
My favorite of Jaimes's work so far was published on Tuesday, and it manages to combine Nancy's horrid lack of self-awareness with a fairly up-to-date topic: social media bots.
That last panel, with Nancy's resentful face and the absurdity of Sluggo-bot, is just about perfect. Obviously, real people directly in front of you can't be bots, but Nancy can't fathom dissent and so she questions her friend's free will. You could almost picture our president appraising a reporter with this same entitled sneer on his face.
Nancy fans — and yes, there were some — naturally hate the new stuff. On the sit GoComics, Lambert2015 commented on the above strip:
I just can not get into the new Nancy..just not what I enjoy reading with my breakfast. Bye, I will unfollow this comic
And someone named Chirp writes:
I don’t like this crap and just unfollowed this destruction of a 70 year old comic strip. Millennials, IF they read comics, will LOVE the fact that the RACE of 1 of the main characters has now been changed. I wonder when their sex lives will?
I have no idea what Chirp is talking about with regard to race — perhaps they're referring to the strip's new color palette, which uses more browns and yellows than past Nancy strips? If so, yikes.
And the complaints just keep coming. A user named JLG complains, "So far, this new version of Nancy seems rather unfocused and hard to really sink your teeth into," as though you could really devote three or four hours to the substance of a single Nancy strip by Gilchrist or Bushmiller.
Any change on the comics page always evokes a litany of complaints from hardcore fans. Comic strip followers seem to be a pretty conservative bunch, and they absolutely hate change. But the hate Jaimes is receiving is something else again — you'll find a lot of men in the comments raging against her and claiming that she was just an affirmative action hire and needs to be replaced, presumably by a man, immediately.
As for me, I'm a big fan of Nü Nancy. I think the strip is calling back to Bushmiller's bone-dry sense of humor, and Jaimes's idiosyncratic art is endlessly appealing. She's got Bushmiller's sense of minimalism down, but now Nancy looks like an alternative comic. It's a vastly different interpretation than Bushmiller's — weird and wavy as opposed to angular and antiseptic — but it works perfectly in this most meta of comic strips. I'm willing to bet that in six months, the haters in the comments will either have moved to a conservative comic strip (do they still make Mallard Fillmore? If so, why?) or they will have died of old age. We're seeing the eternal struggle between baby boomers and millennials playing out on the comics page, and the sheer weight of time indicates that you should probably put your money on the younger of the two.
Josh Simmons is continuing a proud comics tradition of grossing people the fuck out using graphic violence and inappropriate humor. His books read like modernized, literary versions of those schlocky old EC Comics that came out back before the Comics Code Authority turned the freewheeling world of comic books into squaresville.
This Saturday at the Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery, Simmons will be onhand to present his latest book, Flayed Corpse, which is a kind of one-man anthology written by Simmons and drawn by a passel of artists. (It's fitting that the book is launching in Seattle, since Corpse is a book with deep Seattle roots, too: artists include Seattleites like Eroyn Franklin, Ben Horak, Tom Van Deusen, Pat Moriarty, and Fantagraphics editor Eric Reynolds.)
It probably goes without saying, but this book isn't for everyone. In the second story, a slasher stalks a pair of nubile young women. "…I'm in need of a sweet, slow sexin'," one of the women announces while in the hot tub. "I could go for a slice of the ol' dick myself," the other replies. The story ends with an explicit, gory sex scene that would probably get the book banned in Alabama if a library mishap resulted in a copy of Flayed Corpse winding up in the wrong kids' hands.
But Corpse doesn't feel like a book that's out to get banned for the sake of cheap publicity. Simmons's intent is different than the intended-to-shock vibe of, say, a Johnny Ryan comic. He's genuinely interested in the vocabulary and cadence of horror comics - stretching out a tense scene using longer panels, or a spray of tiny panels to build up suspense, even while the plots of the stories resist the many clichés of the genre. There's no violence in the story by Simmons and Franklin - it's a literal day at the beach - but it's a genuinely unsettling tale in which the threat of violence is palpable in every day-glo panel.
Not every story is a horror show; some are quite amusing. In "Late for the Show," Simmons and Van Deusen draw an enormous manchild going on a cop-killing rampage on what appears to be the Boren overpass. In "The Great Shitter," Moriarty and Simmons tell the story of a giant Godzilla-like creature that eternally eats and shits onto a small town that devotes generations to feces removal. "The shit is pushed out to the river, where it washes away. We all keep our heads above the shit flow and live to work the shit show another day." It's an allegory for jobs like fracking and coal mining that destroy the environment, sure, but it's also a funny story about monsters and poo.
Like the best anthologies, Corpse is interested in keeping you on edge, never quite sure of what's coming next. Hell, don't tell DC Comics, but Simmons seems to have snuck an actual Batman story into the book, somehow. Even just calling it a horror collection is doing it a disservice: Simmons understands that to scare a reader, you can't keep sending unrelenting darkness into faces for a couple hundred pages. True terror happens when you don't know what's going to happen next.
I have written before about how much I detest Mark Millar's Old Man Logan story. It's the worst of modern superhero comics: cynical, try-hard, a crass rip-off of a significant pop cultural icon (Millar should have to pay royalty checks to Clint Eastwood for what he did to Unforgiven.) Somehow the series, which imagined Wolverine living in a dystopian future in which the Hulk breeds with his cousin to father a posse of inbred hulkbillies, managed to inspire Hugh Jackman's final Wolverine movie, Logan - a film with all the heart and thoughtfulness that the original series lacked. But that's the only good thing to ever come out of Old Man Logan
Until now. The 33rd issue of All-New Wolverine, which follows the adventures of Wolverine's younger female clone Laura, kicks off a new storyline called Old Woman Laura. Written by Tom Taylor and illustrated by Ramon Rosanas, this series seems to be a direct response to Old Man Logan - a critique and a call to better superheroic storytelling.
I haven't read a single issue of All-New Wolverine before this one, but I could still easily follow the action. Laura - a character that almost everyone knows, thanks to Dafne Keen's heartfelt portrayal in Logan - is a national leader in a utopian future. She's mentoring an even-younger clone of herself, Gabby, who has taken on the Wolverine name for herself. (This is not the ugly, grim Wolverine of the 1990s: Gabby makes her grand entrance in the comic by groaning at the bad guys, "Urgh, you're the worst.") Laura learns that her time on Earth might be numbered, so she decides to fix the two biggest mistakes from her past: give one person a second chance, and kill another person who escaped justice.
Where Old Man Logan was nasty and mean, Old Woman Laura is fun and compassionate. "We fought against greed and hate and fear. And we actually made the world a better place. The heroes won," Laura announces in the first few pages. It's accompanied by a cityscape drawn by Rosanas that shows glimmering towers and huge expanses of vegetation, all in lush shades of green. It's a beautiful world - one that laughs in the face of Old Man Logan's loathsome dustbowl.
Of course, things could go wrong between this first issue and the end of the Old Woman Laura storyline, but Laura's quote above seems to be the mission statement for the book, a refutation of the cynical worldview espoused by Millar in Old Man Logan. Millar argued that even if heroes did their best, they'd still lose because the natural order of things is to decay and turn sour. Taylor and Rosanas seem to take Millar's vision into account, talk amongst themselves, and then reply, "yeah, fuck that." I'm with them.
Why are fictional cities such a common trope in comics? More than any other art form, comics seem to make it easy to create locations with their own unique spirit. Compare Metropolis in the Superman comics with the Metropolis of any of the Superman movies, for instance, and you'll see how hard it is for film to duplicate the world-building of the comic books. In just a few panels, artists can give Metropolis its own flavor: an art deco city of the future, with flags and golden sunlight everywhere.
In the second issue of a comic titled The City, Seattle cartoonists Stephen Crowe and Melanie Amaral are hard at work creating a fictional city of their own. Set somewhere in Europe, and sometime between World War I and World War II, the titular city is going through that awkward civilizational phase. It's old enough to have a monarchy, for instance, but modern enough to not know what to do with a king. The first story in The City 2 is about a king returning after a long absence, only to find his grand return foiled by moronic bureaucrats. "The King's coming tomorrow," a border guard tells the king's assistant in front of the king, "We got a memorandum about it. It's going to be a big show. We've got all the bunting in, haven't we?" "Oh, for heaven's sake," moans the king as a second guard shows off a box full of bunting for his arrival. It's a dry and funny story that wouldn't be out of place in a Monty Python sketch.
The City is made up of small vignettes which are related only by theme and setting. (You don't need to have read the first issue at all to enjoy the second issue.) Elsewhere in the city, a pair of academic revolutionaries quibble over the name of their new literary magazine. Elsewhere, some elites are anxious at the prospect of eating ethnic foods. In between the stories are advertisements for a grand hotel ("An impenetrable fortress of privilege in the heart of the city," the ad swoons) and other gorgeous artistic flourishes.
The artwork here is beautiful, recalling the whimsy of Kate Beaton and the elegance of old New Yorker cartoons. The dialogue is appropriately stuffy, with pompous characters setting the stage for their own comeuppance. The biggest complaint I have with The City is relatively small - the lettering in one story at the end of the issue is sloppy and difficult to read. In contrast with the delicate lettering in the rest of the issue, those airy balloons and ugly cursive captions feel more amateurish than everything else.
But fans of literary comedy will be over the moon while reading The City 2. You'll find elements of Kafka and Stefan Zweig throughout. Amaral and Crowe expertly capture that sensation of the time in Europe in between World Wars, when civilization was barely containing the bestial angst just beneath the surface. Sure, people dress in fancy clothes and speak with the utmost politeness, but you expect that at any moment all the finery and shiny medals might disappear in a whirlwind of chaos. There's not much difference between an upright citizen and a cornered animal - just a uniform or a fancy dress is all that's holding us together.
Now that Facebook is burning down, maybe it's time to learn how to interact with other people again. Maybe you should try to figure out how to write letters. Maybe you've fallen so into the habit of bragging on social media that you don't remember how to tell people honestly about how your day was, or what you think or feel about things. Maybe we all need to learn how to communicate again.
This week, I've been reading Small Careful Fires, a collection of non-fiction comics by Seattle cartoonist Katie Wheeler. They've helped me feel more human in a week when the news is making me feel like nothing more than a predictable set of consumer choices on some website somewhere.
Fires is a collection of strips that read like diary entries. They're little moments, captured and curated with care: Wheeler cooks lunch, she goes to yoga, she and her husband consider adoption. Wheeler's art is intimate and warm. On every page, she letters with a blend of print and cursive that delivers a handwritten vibe.
Some of Wheeler's panels are descriptive, showing the plants in her apartment in close detail. Other panels are more abstract, depicting her anxieties as an ominous doorway to "a room of worries in [her] mind." A few panels are crammed full of words, like when someone tries to tell you a story they're so excited to share that they start talking really quickly.
Wheeler uses color to great effect in Small Careful Fires. Each anecdote is told in shades of a single color. The strip about anxiety is laid out in shades of blue, the strip about tending plants is green. The color creates an atmosphere for each story, giving each turn of the page some added excitement.
Reading Small Careful Fires in this exact moment was important for me: it reminded me that there's more to communication than what we can cram into Facebook's text boxes. Wheeler's autobiographical strips are so open and funny and inspirational and inviting that they'll make you want to share something of yourself, too — something real. Something human.
I came late to cartoonist Rich Tommaso's work - the first comic of his that I read was the funny-animal Tintin pastiche Spy Seal - but I think I'm falling in love. His art is so clean, his storytelling so economical, that it seems like it's just a matter of time before one of the mainstream publishers shows up on his front lawn with a dump truck of money and forces him to start drawing Batman for a living. Tommaso is an artist who is so unique that the comics industry is bound to try to crush him into something they can more easily manipulate.
Yesterday, I picked up the first issue of Tommaso's latest series, Dry County. It's a sunny Miami noir story about a guy who meets a woman and falls into really deep shit really quickly. (Sidebar: does any noir ever take place in a dark and rainy city anymore? Seems like every noir nowadays is located in Florida or California, and is always described with the word "sunbaked.") Tommaso is using a different style here than the slick European look of Spy Seal: Dry County looks almost as though it's drawn by Dan Clowes. Every face is a little bit…off…with too-small eyes or a crooked nose or a smile that twists the wrong way across someone's cheek.
The narrator, a cartoonist named Lou Rossi, is a misanthrope. He lurks around Miami, sweating too much and trying to drink himself to some sense of peace. Then, he runs into someone in a laundry room. Her. "A blonde goddess," Rossi calls her. Of course, there's trouble. She's in an unhappy relationship, and it's been a long time since Rossi's been in a relationship, and things start to go bad quick.
There's nothing too original in the plot, but every page of Dry County brings a new delight with it. Rossi has a friend named Robert, for instance, who seems to have wandered in from a pornographic Popeye cartoon a few books over. The opening splash page of Rossi wandering around a rave is practically the dictionary definition of what it feels like to be alone in a crowd. And a gorgeous two-panel sequence of Rossi day-drinking on a porch as he stares out onto a pastel-colored Miami street will leave you drooling.
I don't know where Dry County is going, but Tommaso has proven to be such a phenomenal talent that I expect the book to keep up this delight-on-every-page spirit until the bitter - and no doubt sunbaked - end.
When I was a kid, I loved poring over the old cosmic superhero comics of the 1970s. Something about those books — their shaggy-haired heroes pondering the self and free will, against a trippy backdrop of stars and cosmic energy — appealed to my sense of self-indulgence.
One of my favorites from that time was Jim Starlin's Adam Warlock series, a blessedly self-contained adventure of a space messiah who ultimately had to confront his twisted mature self. (In the 1970s, the Warlock story had a beginning, middle, and end, which was a rarity in serialized superhero comics. In the 1990s, Starlin revived Warlock and put him back on the intellectual property merry-go-round. As far as I'm concerned, the character stayed dead.) The book was visually wild, conceptually bold, and as cerebral as it was fun.
What I didn't know when I first read those cosmic superhero stories was that in 1970s France, an artist named Phillippe Druillet was creating a line of wild cosmic adventures that made its American counterparts seem as pedestrian as a Garfield comic strip.
Now, Titan Comics is reprinting Druillet's Lone Sloane comics in a gorgeous series of slim oversized albums. The latest, Gail, is out later this month, and it's astounding. Gail is the story of an evil alien race, "made of metal and hate," whose "only pleasure was to kill, their only ambition to kill more."The beginning of Gail depicts their empire in enormous double-page spreads showing vessels more gigantic and malevolent in scope than that Star Destroyer scene in the first Star Wars film.
Gail is a sexy, vivid fever dream, a story of pure evil trying to exert its will on the universe. The panels are angular and detailed down to the very last millimeter: a dimension of fractal skeletons; an emperor languishing on a throne in the aftermath of an orgy; a foreboding castle that stretches miles into the stratosphere, with a real photograph of a woman's face embedded into the front of it.
Our hero, Sloane, is not as grandiloquent as some of Marvel's more pompous cosmic heroes ("Go fuck yourselves!" he roars at the bad guys at one point.) But he's every bit as tenacious, venturing to the land of the dead to confront his opponents and upend the evil empire using just his wits and existential angst as weapons.
I'm not entirely sure what's happening at every point in the story, but that's not a strike against Gail. These cosmic books don't always follow the simple rules of cause and effect. Instead, they're examinations of what it means to be alive, to make moral choices in the universe, to carry the resonsiblity of existing. And Gail commits to the airy spirituality in a way that its American cousins could never manage. You'll never look at Adam Warlock the same way again after you read the adventures of his bonkers French cousin.
Emerald City Comicon has long since sold out, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy a number of (free) comics-centered celebrations around Seattle this weekend. Here are a few of the best-looking events for you to attend:
Broadway's Phoenix Comics is hosting a signing tonight from 5 to 7 pm with Seattle author G. Willow Wilson and former Batgirl writer and MotorCrush writer/artist Babs Tarr.
The fantastic free comics anthology Thick as Thieves is hosting "Thievescon" Friday night at Nii Modo on Stone Way. All sorts of great local cartoonists will be in attendance including Marie Hausauer and Sarah Ramano Diehl. This looks to be a great independent Seattle-centric mini-con.
Also on Friday night, Outsider Comics and Geek Boutique in Fremont is hosting Seattle artist Tatiana Gill as part of their artwalk celebration.
Saturday afternoon and evening, Outsider Comics is hosting a signing from cartoonist Ben Fleuter and a signing from Richard Rivera, who created something called Stabbity Bunny.
Yesterday I interviewed Jaime Hernandez, who will be doing a special signing at a party at the Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery in Georgetown on Saturday night with other cartoonists including Simon Hanselmann.
And also on Saturday night, Phoenix Comics is hosting a party to celebrate the podcast Jay + Miles X-Plain the X-Men.
And if you'd rather buy comics than socialize, Comics Dungeon in Wallingford is hosting a different sale for every day of the convention. These sales, according to the Dungeon, have "one specific goal; to try to get you to try something new!"
Last month, Drawn and Quarterly published the new English translation of Swedish cartoonist Anneli Furmark's comic Red Winters. Though the book is set in 1970s Sweden, it feels newly relevant for a politically charged America in 2018.
Red Winter is the story of an affair, but it's also a political story. In the dark of winter, a wife and mother named Siv finds comfort in the arms of a young unmarried man named Ulrik. Siv is a member of the Socialist Democrats, which were at the time Sweden's longtime ruling political party. Ulrik is a communist who is part of a group that actively seeks to undo capitalism.
Their political differences don't matter to Siv and Ulrik, but they do matter to everyone else. As the community discusses Siv's infidelity, the relationship becomes a partisan football, used to question the couple's commitment to their respective causes. The communists suspect Ulrik of selling out; neighbors wonder if Siv is about to turn radical.
Of course, every affair is political. Siv and Ulrik's decisions don't only affect them. Red Winter brilliantly displays the impact of the affair on everyone in the community by continuously changing perspectives: one chapter focuses on Siv's daughter while another centers on Ulrik's nosy roommate. Siv's husband starts to realize something is wrong. Everyone is, ultimately, a partisan.
Anyone who's lived through Seattle's endlessly glum winters will find something to recognize in Furmark's gorgeous illustrations. A cold and dark winter - snowier than here, obviously - permeates every page, and Furmark's orange-and-blue color palette perfectly portrays the whipsaw winter alternation between cozy warmth and brutal frigidity. You can feel the cold of this book in your bones.
The characters, too, are instantly recognizable in just a handful of lines. Even as they strip off layers when they head indoors and swaddle themselves in protective winter clothing when they leave the house, you always know exactly who you're looking at. Furmark's biography describes her as "One of the most important comics artists in Sweden," and Red Winter is the first full-length work to be translated into English. Let's hope it's not the last.
Berger Books, the new editor-driven imprint from Portland publisher Dark Horse Comics, is something new in the world of comics. It's a bet that readers of comics actually care about editors - or even really understand what comics editors do, for that matter. But to be fair, Karen Berger is one of the most successful editors in comics history: she created DC Comics's wildly successful Vertigo line, which created the template for modern mature-readers comics.
And now that Vertigo has largely disappeared, maybe there's an underserved audience that will flock to Berger Books. I certainly hope so; based on the one book from Berger that I've read - writer Mat Johnson and artist Warren Pleece's Incognegro: Renaissance, the first issue of which published just last week - this is a line that's deserving of a very large audience.
Renaissance is a prequel to the Vertigo comic Incognegro, about a light-skinned Black reporter who can pass for white in 1930s New York City. (You don't have to have read the first book to understand this new one.) It's the first issue of a five-issue mystery story, and it's a masterful example of storytelling economy.
Renaissance opens with our hero, Zane Pinchback, attending an un-segregated party in honor of a new novel about Harlem written by a white author. The publisher praises the author for "braving streets of Harlem rarely seen by white eyes," which causes all the Black eyes in the house to roll violently back in their skulls. ("Another hand for the great white warrior, back from safari," one Black partygoer blurts as he chugs on a bottle of wine.)
Johnson and Pleece elegantly set the stage here: they walk us through the party, introduce us to all the suspects, and then establish a splashy murder of a surprising victim before the book hits page 20. The tensions are high, and everyone's got a motive. Pinchback makes a great detective, as he can code himself on either side of the racial tensions surrounding the murder. I can't tell you how the book will play out, obviously, but Renaissance's first issue is a compelling beginning, and Berger's imprimatur should earn a reader's trust that the story will keep the promise made by the opening chapter.
Let’s be clear: former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich is a cartoonist, but his latest title from Seattle-based comics publisher Fantagraphics Books, Economics in Wonderland, is not a comic book. The illustrations in the book aren’t, strictly speaking, comics. They’re cartoons. Perhaps this seems like splitting hairs, but it’s an important distinction: comics involve a juxtaposition of words and illustrations, while cartoons are simply funny drawings that accompany the text without enriching the text.
Wonderland is adapted from Reich’s wonderful series of short illustrated economics lectures on YouTube. Here’s a sample:
Without the actual video of Reich drawing the cartoons, they lose something on the page. In the videos, Reich will often go back and cross out a word or a phrase he previously drew for emphasis. In the book, that word or phrase only appears crossed out, and the impact of crossing it out is lost. Basically, you could read the book without looking at a single illustration and you wouldn’t really miss anything. Which is a bummer.
At the Reading Through It Book Club at Third Place Books Seward Park last night, some of our members were frustrated with Wonderland. They weren’t sure who the book’s intended audience was; was it preaching to the choir, one member asked, or was it supposed to win over conservatives? Why didn’t Reich provide more examples of why a higher minimum wage was a good thing, say, or how more people benefit when we tax the rich at a higher rate?
Speaking as someone who has interviewed Reich and reviewed many of his books, I think some of those complaints miss the mark. Reich is interested in building an economic vocabulary for progressives, to give them an array of cohesive ideas through which they can understand and explain the world. He’s an educator first — his preferred title is “Professor Reich,” not “Secretary Reich” — and not a journalist. He is a gifted lecturer and a top-tier economic thinker, and he’s devoting his talents to explaining middle-out economics to a broad audience.
Some members of the Reading Through It Book Club, though, seemed to think that economics isn’t enough, that Democrats need to do a better job of conveying empathy and why government needs more compassion. And others thought Reich's ideas were a waste of time; one member rejected the idea of Universal Basic Income out of hand, for instance, because he said it wasn’t possible.
And then there’s the question of whether economics can get us out of this mess at all. If capitalism demands continual growth in order to be healthy, can capitalism be considered a truly sustainable system? A middle-schooler with one physics class under her belt could tell you that never-ending growth is impossible. Can we spend our way out of the mess that America has become? We were once promised that automation would create 3-day work weeks for everyone; now we’re told that automation will render millions of jobs obsolete, and we can see that technology has blurred the lines between work and personal life in some very uncomfortable ways.
A number of Reading Through It members loved Wonderland and appreciated the way it made economics — an inscrutable field to them, previously — into something that they could easily understand. I, for instance, appreciated Reich’s description of the way the Federal Reserve maintains the complicated relationship between interest rates and inflation. Throughout the book, people found clarity on matters that previously seemed too complex to understand. In that way, Reich’s talent as a teacher became clear. Everyone learned something, and we had an intense 20-minute conversation about whether Universal Basic Income is a tenable Democratic position for the 2020 elections. Not bad for a book of silly cartoons.
I've been enjoying the Young Animal line of comics curated by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way. They're a pop-up imprint published on the fringes of the DC Comics superhero properties, taking on the same rebellious-goth-teen role that Vertigo Comics did back in the 1990s. The best Young Animal books, like Mother Panic, fill in a gap left by the all-ages edict of mainstays like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. They're a little bit weirder, a little bit more imaginative, a lot looser.
This week saw the first issue of Milk Wars, a crossover between Young Animal comics and DC Comics. If you've ever been disgusted with the crass action-figure ballet that is the typical superhero crossover, you'll probably find something to love here.
Milk Wars is a meta-crossover pitting the weird heroes of the Doom Patrol versus the staid, conservative heroes of the DC Universe. And thanks to an intergalactic bureaucracy called Retconn, the DC Universe has been made even more conservative. Superman is a flying milkman. The other Justice League figures have been recast as the Community League of Rhode Island, a staid suburban homeowners association with superpowers.
This feels like a crossover with something to say, which is a rarity for the genre. Of course, some of that conservatism of the mainstream DC line rubs off on the Doom Patrol; while the Young Animal books are generally content to be weird without bragging about how weird they are, in this comic they're painfully self-aware.
"Some of the best people are weirdos," a Doom Patrol member says while in the middle of a fight with the godlike milkman, and the point is made. But then two panels later, she adds, "everyone's a little strange, and that's okay." Later on, someone says "maybe strange deserves a shot." There's nothing less weird than talking about how weird you are; the repetition gives off the impression of a coffee cup that reads "You Don't Have to Be Crazy to Work Here, But It Helps!"
This is probably the reason Vertigo began enforcing a concrete divider between itself and the mainstream DC superhero universe in the late 1990s. When you combine the two tones into a single book, you get something that feels a little smaller than its component parts. Milk Wars, at least, seems to recognize that flaw and builds it into the plot.
And in Milk Wars #1, you get several full-page shots of people with bizarre powers punching each other, which is the point of these whole things, right? Can there be anything more dull, anything more in direct opposition to art, than conflict for conflict's sake? And isn't there maybe a chance for some art to made out of that artlenssness?
I enjoyed the first issue of sci-fi writer Saladin Ahmed's Black Bolt series for Marvel Comics, but I ultimately didn't continue with the book, because Black Bolt is the very definition of a one-note character. The best writing in the world couldn't make an aloof mute king with a tuning fork on his forehead a compelling protagonist. But there was so much talent in evidence in that first issue of Black Bolt that when I saw Ahmed had a new creator-owned series coming out from Boom! Studios, I was eager to give it a try.
Abbott, published for the first time yesterday, is a new series about an African-American newspaper reporter in 1972 Detroit. Elena Abbott is described in the first issue of Abbott as a "black Lois Lane," but Ahmed admits in interviews that he envisions the character as more along the lines of the cult TV show Kolchak the Night Stalker.
A tough Black journalist on the mean streets of 70s Detroit, fighting supernatural menaces? Yes, please! Abbott has all the makings of a great comic series, and artist Sami Kivelä is a revelation: he draws apartments that look lived in, and figures that have lived entire lives. It's a flat-out gorgeous book.
It's a shame, then, that the first issue of Abbott suffers from a pretty severe cass of first-issue-itis. There are a lot of word balloons here covering up Kivelä's beautiful artwork, and a lot of them could have been trimmed. The exposition flows hot and heavy, with a lot of telling and not enough showing. Early in the issue, Abbott shows up at a crime scene with her own camera. She's greeted by an older white photographer. This is their exchange:
—Holy crap, Abbott, Fred's got you taking your own pictures now? That's ridiculous. He giving you any kind of budget?
—Hello, Murray. It's not Fred. It's the higher-ups. Someone didn't care for my police brutality stories. I'm being punished.
—That's too bad. You're a good reporter, Abbott. A damn good reporter. Better than the little @#$%& I'm working with now.
—Thank you, Murray. And you're the best crime photographer in Detroit.
—Now you're just flattering me.
—Well, it is possible I'm hoping you'll tell me what the police know here, since no one else will.
This exchange desperately needs an editor. There's way too much backstory and repetition and cross-talk for the first few pages of a comic. I'd love to see Murray and Abbott's history relayed through an intimate exchange that didn't lay everything out so plainly.
As the issue carries on, Abbott starts to pick up in pace, building to a cliffhanger that really sets the premise in motion. I'm definitely coming back for the second issue. But I'm also willing to bet that the second issue of Abbott should have been the first issue; dropping the reader in the middle of the action and forcing them to figure out the story as it goes along is always preferable to explaining everything.
Last year, small press comics publisher Alterna Comics began publishing a line of cheap comics. Printed on flimsy newsprint, these books sold for $1.50 a pop — about half the price of the cheapest monthly comics published by the big two mainstream publishers.
Unfortunately, most of what I've seen from Alterna Comics hasn't blown me away. One comic, Amazing Age is clearly playing for a noxious kind of superhero nostalgia. It reads like a Marvel Comic from the 1980s with worse art — full of self-referential superhero action with no depth or consequences. The comic appeared to be designed to appeal to the grown men who remember spending $1.50 per issue on comics, and really nobody else.
But at least one of Alterna Comics's line has very much impressed me with its wicked sense of genre fun. Written by Jordan Hart and illustrated by Emmanuel Xerx Javier, the four-issue miniseries titled Doppelgänger tells the story of a bland computer programmer named Dennis who finds himself copied by an ancient, evil magical creature. The Dennisgänger takes over Dennis's suburban life, sleeping with his wife and playing role playing games with his friends.
The second issue of Doppelgänger landed yesterday, and it's everything you'd want in a second issue. The book doesn't waste any time spinning its wheels, instead launching forward into Dennis's plan to take his life back. Meanwhile, the Dennisgänger begins to assert himself in dynamic ways at Dennis's job. The two are hurtling toward each other, and it's a real pleasure to know that the storytellers aren't going to waste their readers' time in the telling of the tale.
Doppelgänger is fantastic, pulpy fun — a dark fantasy thriller that seems to be hurtling toward a conclusive ending. I'd be thrilled to buy it at three times the price. At a buck fifty an issue, I'm not sure why it's not on the bestseller charts.
Friends, I'm going to make a bold announcement: It is quite possible that the best new series of 2018 from one of the big two "mainstream" comics publishers has already made its debut. The book in question was published last Wednesday — the first new comics day of the year — and I can't stop thinking about it.
And it's a comic book based on the old Hanna Barbera character Snagglepuss. Yes, that Snagglepuss:
Written by Mark Russell and illustrated by Mike Feehan and Mark Morales, Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles is a new limited series that imagines Snagglepuss as a closeted gay playwright in the red-panic blacklist era.
This is the most literary comic I've read in ages. How literary? Dorothy Parker is a main character in the first issue. "Personally, I always admired the Algonquin Round Table, the finest assemblage of wits in American history," Snagglepuss explains to a reporter outside a play. "As a young kit growing up in rural Mississippi, they were my Knights of the Round Table. New York, my Camelot." (The reporter then looks at the reader and announces, "a young lion makes good. Only in America!")
Much like Russell's amazing Flintstones comic from 2016, what should be a one-note joke instead plays out with intelligence, wit, and a strong moral core. Russell has got to be among the finest satirists in modern American comics — admittedly, it's not a crowded field — and his compassion for the character practically throbs off the page.
Stage Left isn't afraid to poke around in the darkest corners of post-WWII America. So what if every fifth character or so is an anthropomorphized dog or cat or mouse? And who cares if those talking mammals don't wear pants? I'm not sure if the whys and hows of Snagglepuss's world will ever be explained, or if there's a single unified theory of the satire. (Are the animals in human clothes supposed to represent the naivete of 1950s America? Uh, maybe?) But at this point, I'm having so much fun with the premise that I frankly don't care.
I'm convinced the telecommunications network is doomed to collapse so I started making zines again! You can buy one and have it delivered to your mailbox. Old skool! #zine #comix #cartoon #drawing pic.twitter.com/mPuggYQn16— Brett Hamil (@BrettHamil) December 18, 2017
I don't think that Seattle writer and comedian Brett Hamil would be offended if I referred to his art as amateurish. He's not looking to wow you with his hyperrealistic portraits, or his three-dimensional rendering style. No, the illustration in his cartoons are fairly primitive; they're better than I (and likely you) could draw, to be sure, but not by too much.
And that's okay. Hamil is a standup comedian, and his cartoons are strictly joke delivery systems — the quickest way for him to get a good laugh out of you in the print medium. In that regard, they work really well; they're classic gag cartoons.
Hamil has collected some of his funniest City Arts cartoons in a five dollar zine titled Subconscious Hairstyle Mirroring (and other notions), and I'm pleased to report that the strips work even better in aggregate than they did singly, as they were originally published.
Like any good gag cartoonist, Hamil works within a few formulas. He imagines absurdist magazine covers (sample Infant Magazine headline: "Object Permanence: Myth or Fact?") and creates little four-item lists of observational comedy (one of the items in "Why We've Got Swagger Today:" "Found typo in the New Yorker.")
These strips are full of the kind of laughs that come when you recognize the absurd in the familiar. Schlubby middle-aged white guys are absolutely crazy about boxer briefs, for instance, and introducing someone to your favorite barista is, in fact, a major relationship benchmark. When rendered in Hamil's no-frills style, the jokes are even funnier: there's a nice back-of-the-envelope feel that saves the strips from becoming too self-important.
Hamil claims to have assembled Hairstyle as a minicomic because he believes the internet, with its weird self-destructive social media and its lack of net neutrality, is going away. I'd almost welcome internet armageddon if it meant more physical media like this.
And I'd definitely welcome another collection of comics that highlight Hamil's more strident political side. With his passionate political commentary Hamil has become one of Seattle's most outspoken citizens — the kind of angry truth-teller that politicians loathe and activists adore.
Hairstyle generally sticks to social commentary and absurdist comedy, and that feels exactly right for a debut collection. But if Hamil published a collection of comics about Seattle's consistent failure to construct a strong municipal broadband system, for example, I'd be the first in line to slap down my five bucks. When a comedian starts speaking relentless truth to power, that's when things really start getting good.
Natalie Dupille works along a wide spectrum of cartooning. Her diary comics — as seen in her most recent collection, October Diary — are sketchy and minimalist. It's remarkable the information that Dupille's cartooning can convey in with so little. Look at this image from the cover of October Diary:
Now consider how amazing it is that your eye can assess that image and immediately determine that it's set at a rollerskating rink when all you can see is exactly six motion lines, an eighth of a disco ball, a single rollerskate wheel, and a background figure. Dupille's entire head on the cover of the book is made up of exactly eight lines: one arrow of a nose, a swooping chin, a concentrating dot of a mouth, two eyes tight in concentration, and then three wavy lines marking her hair flowing in the breeze.
Some might think this rough sketch style of art is simple, but it is in fact inordinately difficult. When you draw with fewer lines, as Dupille does in her diary comics, that creates a tremendous pressure on the artist to make sure that every line is exactly the right line.
The writing in these diary comics is perfectly complementary to the art. Dupille catches a single moment in her day and rounds it out using exactly the right images. She notices how abusive guests at a dinner party behave toward the female voice coming out of an Amazon Echo speaker, for instance, or a blandly inoffensive statement at a corporate meeting can trigger memories of Donnie Darko.
These are tiny moments, but they are titanically tiny moments. They feel neat and self-contained and somehow expansive enough to swallow a reader's brain whole. One page of silent sketches of Dupille's cats and a caption reading "Sad & listening to Graceland on repeat" has somehow taken up residence in my head the way a good pop song does; I'm currently thinking of this strip six to eight times a day.
But there's a flip side to Dupille's work, on the other end of the spectrum from her sketchier comics. Her more rendered work features what appears to be watercolor, adding a delicate and vibrant life to her lines. These painted strips tend to focus on nature and science, and they demonstrate Dupille's boundless curiosity and enthusiasm for learning.
In Huckleberry Pie no.3: Selected Comics 2015-2016, Dupille lays out a two-page spread about the sex lives of banana slugs and earths, and it's a joyous, fun pair of strips. (Banana slugs, she tells us "frequently eat each other's penises after sex. No one really knows why, but we're accepting of most fetishes here in Seattle.") Another, more personal strip details the construction of a cob oven as part of Dupille's attempt to get closer to the land. Readers will find Dupille's attempts to understand the world around her to be infectious; her unabashed geekery is wildly appealing.
Total Lunarchy, a self-described "Zine About Space Dust and Other Important Extraterrestrial Matters," expands Dupille's curiosity into the chilly depths of space. Specifically, she focuses her curiosity on the clingy dust that has plagued the few astronauts we sent to walk on the moon. Lunarchy is about all the things we don't know about the moon. Specifically, she examines why static cling and magnetic fields combine to make the moon inhospitable to our attempts to set up base there.
Dupille is at the top of a very short list of cartoonists who are gifted at explaining science in a fun, approachable way. Lunarchy came out of a collaboration between Dupille and UW research associate professor Dr. Erika Harnett, and hopefully it's not the last foray Dupille will make into the sciences. The universe is complex and confusing; we could use more guides like her to illuminate the darkness with funny and informative cartoons.
Writer Matthew Rosenberg and artist Tyler Boss’s 5-issue crime miniseries 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank is finally available in collected form, and you need to hunt down a copy immediately. Kids has so far managed to evade mainstream acclaim somehow, but its moment will come. The book is too goddamned enthusiastic, too exuberant, to ignore.
Kids is a comic about four children who become tangled in some very adult dealings, up to and including a bank robbery. They’re relatively normal kids — maybe a little more clever than the average child, but not obnoxiously so — and so they go about a life of crime in the bumbling way that children go about anything: they only understand parts of what’s going on around them, and they laugh at inappropriate things, and they are excitable in exactly the wrong ways. While they understand that they’re in a life-or-death situation, they might not understand exactly what a life-or-death situation entails. (Four of the five issues open with fantasy sequences of the kids playing video and role-playing games, where all the consequences can be wiped away with the click of a reset button. This is no mistake.)
Rosenberg and Boss match the kids enthusiasm for enthusiasm. Rosenberg’s script is a little overbearing — it is indisputably dialogue-heavy, though the text is zippier than in your average crime comic — but it is clever and funny and the characters feel real, by which I mean they’re not always likable.
Boss’s art leans on the minimalist side of gorgeous. He’s good at stepping back and choosing just the right line to tell a character’s story. And he experiments in all sorts of fun ways. Get a load of the way he incorporates Katsushika Hokusai’s painting The Great Wave off Kanagawa into this panel:
The way he uses the curvature of the painting to add to and emphasize Paige’s inner strength is downright masterful. In this one panel — and even without any of the dialogue — we have a sense of the role she plays in her peer group and the intensity of her character. This is the kind of thing that a novelist would have to spend dozens of pages to build up, and Boss just lays it plain in the space of one little box.
Kids is crammed full of smart-asses and crotch jokes and all kinds of puns and witty dialogue. You get the feeling that if you were to tip it upside down and shake it, some of Boss and Rosenberg’s good ideas would fall out of the book like glitter because it's so overstuffed. But it’s affecting, too — particularly in one particular parental relationship that I don’t want to expand on for fear of spoiling the story. There’s an emptiness, an airiness in the relationship that can only be left by another human being, and that ache pulses off the page.
In the end, I can’t talk about Kids without repeatedly evoking the two words I used at the beginning of this review: exuberance and enthusiasm. Rosenberg and Boss demonstrate the kind of glossy-coat enthusiasm for the magic of graphic storytelling that only talented artists at the very beginning of a comics career can muster.
But I could show you landfills packed with enthusiastic books that are no damn good at all. It’s Boss and Rosenberg’s exuberance for the characters, and for storytelling, that make it all work so well. They’re not showing off for showing-off’s sake: they’re honing their excitement and their obvious love of the craft to best serve these characters, and to best tell this story. If it’s been a while since you read a book that was purely an act of love between artists and their medium, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.
So as you probably know by now, writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank are publishing a sequel to Watchmen titled Doomsday Clock. I don't really know what to say about the first issue of the book, except it is drenched in nostalgia. It's the kind of book that ten thousand teenage geeks dreamed they'd get to write after they read Watchmen for the first time. Doomsday Clock reads like a cover version of Watchmen, a mimicking of Alan Moore's tone without the intellect to back it up.
At least the art is pretty. Frank is one of the best contemporary superhero artists, though it must be said that his work is changing in an unpleasant way with each passing year. The faces of his characters are getting tighter and more pinched; the poses seem more coiled with every new page. The looseness and excitement of his early work seems to be replaced with a dour and puckered over-rendering, and it's kind of sad to watch. I want to start a GoFundMe to send him on a nice relaxing vacation or something.
DC Comics published a prequel to Doomsday Clock in a Batman/Flash crossover called The Button, which is out in hardcover with a fancy cover that changes when you tilt the book. I enjoyed parts of The Button — writer Tom King's segments of the story, particularly a slow-motion battle between Batman and the ridiculous Flash villain Reverse-Flash, is laid out with King's customary attention to the rhythmic power of comics.
But The Button isn't just a callback to the Watchmen: it also homages the 1980s crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths, which suggests that perhaps there's even more of a callback to 1980s nostalgia in DC Comics today than Doomsday Clock lets on. It seems that every single book DC is publishing has to hearken back to its 45-year-old-male readership's childhoods in some form or another.
I can't really recommend either of these books, even though they're definitely appealing to a certain kind of reader. It doesn't really feel like there's anything new here, but unfortunately there are plenty of readers who might take that as a recommendation and not a criticism.