Most modern superhero comics feel like action figure catalogs. Every story involves a new costume, or an alternate-reality version of a character, or a new character taking over the title temporarily. It just feels like the creators are stewards of an IP, adding value to the original concept by spinning a variant into existence that will one day be molded into plastic and sold.
The first issue of artist Greg Capullo and writer Scott Snyder's DC crossover comic Dark Nights: Metal is basically everything modern audiences want in superhero comics: wall-to-wall action, decorated with a bunch of Easter eggs that call back to decades of convoluted continuity. It opens with the Justice League in outer space, being forced into gladiatoral combat, and it expands into a secret society revealing the imminent invasion of a grave threat that might destroy the universe or whatever.
Snyder and Capullo create at least two sets of likely profitable action figures in the first ten pages of this book: Gladiator Justice League and Voltron Justice League. Later, we see silhouettes indicating yet another variant: Evil Alternate Universe Batman Justice League. Plus, Batman rides a dinosaur and he almost says the word "ass," both of which are sure to wind up in some listicle on some zombie comics news site as one of the Top 15 Most Awesome Moments In Comics This Year. (You can practically read the breathless copy now: "Four words: Batman. Riding. A. Dinosaur. 'Nuff said.")
There's an obvious high level of competency in the actual craft of the comic. Snyder is very good at getting information across in a very small space, and Capullo is better than most superhero comics artists at designing a page. They seem to work well together, and the book is technically very proficient.
But the last page involves a character who simply shouldn't be there. I won't spoil the big surprise, but let's just say it's akin to the revelation that DC Comics is incorporating Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen comics into mainstream DC continuity. It feels like another pointless violation of another barrier, and it cheapens a much-loved comics property by turning it into a plot point. But hey — at least it'll make a really cool action figure line one day.
You've gotta love a comics anthology built on a theme. There's something so conversational and warm and inquisitive about collections of short comics, particularly when they're all examining a particular idea from a wide variety of perspectives.
The 19th issue of Not My Small Diary — part of the My Small mini-empire created by Delaine Derry Green (the zine creator known best for her long-running series My Small Diary) — is an anthology of 43 autobiographical comics about unexplained events. As you might expect, the stories range from the outright supernatural (lots of ghost sightings) to the merely coincidental (immediately after having a dream about a mugger stealing $20 from them, a cartoonist is handed $20 by some random guy on the street.)
This particular issue of Not My Small Diary is loaded full of Seattle cartoonists including Noel Franklin, David Lasky, Kelly Froh, Donna Barr, Max Clotfelter, Colleen Frakes, Mark Campos, Ben Horak, and Roberta Gregory. It's with more than a little pride that I note that Seattle contributes some of the strongest pieces in the book, including Franklin's creepy crow story, Campos's short tale of the six words you'd least like to hear from thin air in the dead of night, and Frakes's account of the time she accidentally entered into a family's haunted living situation.
Ranging in tone from skepticism to avid believer, these comics combine to form a wide-ranging study of experiences and feelings about paranormal activities. It's kind of like a long sleepless night swapping stories around the campfire. Some of the stories are total bullshit; others feel a little too true for comfort. No matter where you stand on UFOs and ghost stories, you'll find something to appreciate here.
Aside from Charles Schulz's Peanuts, American comics aren't great at melancholy. I've read plenty of depressing comics, and many upbeat comics, but the gentle downward slope of melancholy seems too subtle for most American cartoonists to capture.
The 20th issue of Chip Zdarsky and Matt Fraction's series Sex Criminals is about a breakup. Neither party seems to want to break up, but they both understand that they have to do it. They have sex, even though they know they shouldn't. They have trouble articulating the things they know they need to say. They are uncomfortable in the moment, and they both know it.
Meanwhile, in another scene, a middle-aged man and woman have sex. She's a retired sex worker. He's an academic. His reaction to her past is getting in the way. She's seen this before. She's tired of it, but she explains it to him anyway.
Sex Criminals has always been a special comic. It's based on a one-note gimmick of a plot — a man and a woman find that they can stop time with their orgasms, so they go on a fuck-fueled bank-robbery spree — but it has somehow expanded to incorporate a rainbow of sexual interests, personalities, and questions about what it means to be human. It's explored adult romantic relationships with a subtlety that most modern literary novels can't touch. The depiction of depression in an early issue felt truer and more honest than most memoir. For those reasons and more, the series continues to be a miracle of the American comics industry.
But issue number 20 is something else again. It has the feel of a deep-autumn Charlie Brown strip (albeit one with explicit illustrations of adult genitalia) and it perfectly captures the responsibility and difficulty of adult life. New readers will be entirely lost — hell, I can't keep track of who all these characters are, and I've been following the book since the beginning — but those who have read the whole thing will find a remarkable maturation in the book's already-mature themes. If Sex Criminals keeps up like this — and if it, uh, climaxes in a, uh, satisfying way — it could be one of the all-time great serialized comics.
I have to admit something: I loved the first issue of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Black Panther, but the series has largely lost my interest in the intervening year-and-a-half. That first issue was a perfect balance between pop-culture philosphy and superhero action, and Coates seemed to be attempting a more stylish version of a text-heavy style of comics writing that we haven't seen in mainstream comics since the 1980s.
But gradually, over the next few issues, Coates's writing went from wordy to overindulgent to bloated. Long stretches would happen where people would talk in self-important prose and all the important story beats seemed to be happening off-panel. The recap pages would contain more palace drama than the actual comics pages.
And to cap it all off, Brian Stelfreeze, the artist who started Black Panther with Coates, seemed to entirely disappear. Stelfreeze has always had difficulty hitting a monthly deadline, but this book used so much of his visual language that when he stopped drawing the title, the characters seemed to lose their motivation with him. I ordinarily adore Chris Sprouse, the artist who has taken Stelfreeze's place, but Sprouse's superheroic figures, who always seem ready to leap off the page their impossible musculatures and lantern jaws, feel badly mismatched with Coates's action-free scripts.
All that said, the latest issue of Black Panther, #16, is the most exciting issue in a long time. In just a few pages, Coates manages to reinvigorate a background character from the Marvel Universe in a way that feels entirely authentic and thought-provoking, yet still true to the character. The few scenes with this character combine social commentary, some fun writing, and a genuine passion for the Marvel Comics framework.
But it's not enough to salvage the whole issue. Back-up characters appear and disappear with no explanation. The story wants to raise stakes without actually investing in building the drama, and Coates can't seem to find a working rhythm for the book.
Perhaps Black Panther reads differently in trade paperback; it's possible that it flows better when given the same attention one would apply to a novel. But as a monthly comic, it's consistently the least interesting book in the stack I bring home from the comic shop. The great promise of that first issue feels squandered.
A considerable portion of Seattle’s comic book talent is in San Diego this week at the corporate pop cultural orgy known as San Diego Comic Con. It makes sense to take stock of comic culture at this time of year, because it’s the closest thing to a High Holy Days in the nerd calendar year. Look anywhere on the internet right now and you’ll probably find an equal share of breathless odes to SDCC and vicious takedowns of everything having to do with the crass commercialism of nerd culture.
The thing is, I do enough whining about corporate comics in this space. And so for Comic Con, I thought I’d point out seven comics series that I’m genuinely excited to read every month. Prepare for niceness:
Ms. Marvel is the best comic that Marvel publishes. It’s consistently great — a deeply personal celebration of the superhero myth.
Paper Girls from Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang evokes a wide array of sci-fi source material — Stranger Things, Lost, Steven Spielberg and Stephen King — while still feeling completely original. It’s a time travel comic that has seemingly been planned down to the last detail, an adventure comic that places character at the forefront of the story, and a touching story about growing old while combating nostalgia.
Giant Days is a perfect sitcom of a book, about a group of young women trying to navigate the adult world. It’s funny, but not in a way that sacrifices the dignity of its characters. It’s sweet, but not cloyingly so. Giant Days is about as likable as a comic can be.
The Black Monday Murders imagines a world where money is power. Okay, but like magical power. It’s a murder mystery set in a world where America's wealthiest families have amassed dark magic along with their wealth, creating a metaphor for income inequality that is perhaps more vivid than any I’ve ever read.
The new comic by underrated novelist Victor LaValle, Destroyer, is a fresh take on the Frankenstein story that addresses race and police violence in a meaningful way. It’s the second-newest comic on the list, but it looks to be a work that will add to LaValle’s shelf full of novels that use genre to investigate the black experience in America.
I just wrote about the first issue of Calexit last week, but I’ve thought a lot about this book in the past seven days. It’s not often that a single issue of a comic lives in my head like this.
Kill or Be Killed is the closest thing to Taxi Driver I’ve read in comics form. It takes vigilante justice to its logical conclusion in a story narrated by a damaged man who murders people he believes to be criminals.
And here’s a bonus comic: yesterday I picked up the first issue of Generation Gone, an Image series written by Ales Kot and illustrated by André Lima Araújo. It’s very promising. The story is about three young hackers who are preparing to steal an obscene amount of money from an obscene too-big-to-fail bank. The class struggle is real: “These children are millennials,” someone exclaims in the middle of the issue. “Men like you have taken their future away from them. They are getting ready to steal it back.”
Araújo draws a diverse cast with expressive faces and he lays out the action through a wide variety of perspectives. It’s a kind of realism that draws you in and lulls you into complacency. Just when you think this is a book about normal people in normal rooms doing fairly straightforward computer-y things, the twist kicks in and you understand that Araújo has a wider range than you first expected: he’s a rare horror artist whose work is genuinely scary.
This first issue of Generation Gone is all set-up. It’ll make for a compelling first chapter in the inevitable collected volume, but readers of the first issue might be annoyed that just when the book gets started, it ends. Still, if you give it a chance you'll find a well-written and superbly illustrated high-concept first issue of a series — one that could well wind up on your list of favorite monthly comics.
Volume two of Françoise Mouly and Nadja Spiegelman’s comics anthology Resist! Grab Back! was sitting in the free stacks at Phoenix Comics last night. Even though it says “FREE” in big block letters on the front of the book, it still felt a little like shoplifting to walk off with it: it’s a 48-page full color anthology of anti-Trump comics by cartoonists from around the world. If you were to roll it up, it would likely be thicker than your wrist. It feels substantial and raw and pulpy, like an old issue of Maximumrocknroll, back in the days when people paid money for tiny classified ads.
Resist is a woman-centric collection of anti-Trump comics, and Seattle is well-represented here with artists including Linda Medley. You’ve very likely seen some of these strips online, because political comics circulate faster than venereal diseases on social media nowadays. But when taken in aggregate like this, even the repeats gain a certain kind of power. The quality of the comics vary, of course, but they amount to a cartoon manifesto of sorts, an enthusiastic nose-thumbing at the Trump administration.
Many of the strips focus on menstrual blood as a sign of resistance. (One of my favorites is an anonymous strip encouraging readers to mail bloody tampons and pads to Mike Pence and Paul Ryan.) Others are pieces of journalism. A few of them are gag strips. Not all of them work — Art Spiegelman’s strip depicting Donald Trump as a literal pile of shit has a whiff of desperation to it — but even when a strip doesn’t appeal to the reader, there’s likely a better one just a page turn away. An omnibus of this size and this intensity simply cannot be ignored.
Still, Resist! does feel a bit like an artifact. It’s full of accounts of the Women’s March, which seems like eons ago in the hyper-speed perpetual news cycle we’ve been trapped in all year. A few of the strips are from the days when Steve Bannon seemed like the biggest problem we’d face. And that early sensation of #Resistance depicted in the book — that early idea that we’ll keep up with a relentless schedule of enthusiastic protests every weekend — has faded into a grimmer sense that we’re trudging forward, learning from our mistakes, and preparing for a long haul.
If you’re looking for a piece of comics art that feels as fresh and as lively as a spray of breaking news from Twitter, you’ll have to turn from the free shelf at Phoenix Comics over to the new arrivals wall. Yesterday, the first issue of Calexit was published, and the book couldn’t feel more immediate if it was drawn right in front of you. If you’re the kind of person who avoids the news, author Matteo Pizzolo and artist Amanday Nahuelpan’s story of what happens when liberal parts of California and other West Coast cities secede from the union after a fascist takes control of the United States might make you nauseous.
In a note in the back, Pizzolo explains that Calexit predated the election of Donald Trump, but it certainly leans into the imagery now that we’re here. The second panel of the book depicts a small-handed president announcing that “it’s been two big league years since this nation re-elected me, and I realize California wasn’t smart enough to side with the winner, but I’m still gonna take care of all you citizens.” That’s the only Trumpian appearance in the book, though one character does bear a striking resemblance to Steve Bannon.
So, what’s life like in California and the Pacific Coast Sister City Alliance? It’s pretty tense. The book opens with a delightful conversation between an armed Homeland Security agent and a Californian drug smuggler named Jamil just outside Mann’s Chinese Theater. “As your pharmacist for many weeks now, I’m a bit concerned about this move for you from uppers to anti-depressants,” Jamil tells the soldier. “You feeling okay?” They’re chummy but slightly antagonistic, and their relationship is a good metaphor for the city of Los Angeles as it prepares for a visit from the President.
The atmosphere in Calexit isn’t one of out-and-out civil war. It’s more like the Balkan states: heightened tensions everywhere, pockets of resistance bubbling up here and there, and the promise of a never-ending battle skulking around every corner. There’s even a schlubby Captain America wandering around in the background to remind us that it’s all taking place in Hollywood.
The pacing in the first issue of Calexit is excellent, the characters are well-defined, Nahuelpan’s art is detailed and expressive, and the world established in the story is entirely too believable. The incident that triggered the Calexit of the title is a hardline immigration ban, and the creators address issues of race with compassion and intelligence. The book takes its intellectual responsibility very seriously: Pizzolo interviews various political thinkers and actors and publishes transcripts of the interviews both in the back of the book and on the book’s website.
It’s always hard to predict where a series will go on the basis of its first issue, but I am fully on-board after reading the first installment of Calexit. It’s a highwire act that could go wrong at any moment, but Nauelpan and Pizzolo seem like the right team for the job. They’re not just responding to Donald Trump’s actions like the cartoonists in Resist!. Instead, they’re creating their own world and examining a framework — however fictional — for revolution.
When it comes to Spider-Man, you're either a fan of the Ditko take on the character, or you prefer John Romita. Ditko, of course, created Spider-Man — with some assistance from Stan Lee — but Romita took over the series from Ditko and codified it into the Spider-Man we know today.
It breaks down like this: Ditko's art is weird and a little off-putting and gorgeous. Romita's lines are much cleaner and less complex and more outright heroic. Ditko's version of Peter Parker sulks off to the side of his schoolyard while everyone else socializes. Romita's version is much more mainstream and friendly. Ditko's Spider-Man was paranoid and weird and always in danger of getting angry and hurting someone. Romita's Spider-Man is on all the licensed Underoos and bedsheets, as unthreatening in his own way as Mickey Mouse.
You can probably tell from my description where I stand. I much prefer Ditko's take on Spider-Man, which feels to me like a more realistic portrayal of adolescence. The teen years are lumpy and awkward and infuriating, and Spider-Man should reflect that.
By far, the two best Spider-Man movies to date are Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 starring Tobey Maguire and the new Spider-Man: Homecoming, which opens tonight in theaters everywhere and stars Tom Holland. Of those two, I prefer Raimi's edition, which to me more accurately reflects Ditko's take on the character. Maguire was a mildly creepy Spider-Man; he always had a bit of a leer on his face, and he felt more dangerous than cuddly.
But if you like the Romita Spider-Man, odds are good that Homecoming might be your favorite Spider-Man flick yet. And you'd have good reason to fall for it. This is a funny, entertaining, thrilling superhero movie with great performances anchored by a stellar Tom Holland, and some of the best direction we've seen in a Marvel movie.
Jon Watts, who previously only had one movie — the pulpy thriller Cop Car — to his name, does incredible work here. Watts isn't afraid of pulling the camera waaaaaaaaaaayyyyy back and giving us a long shot, say, of Spider-Man running down a street, or of him goofing around with his webs, or of Peter Parker walking down the hallway of his high school for gifted and talented students. Watts allows things to look a little mundane, which is smart: it humanizes Spider-Man and puts him on our level. We can't help but root for him.
I don't want to give away too much of what little there is of the plot, but suffice it to say we don't dwell on origin stories here. Instead, we just follow Peter Parker around on a few important days in his life, and we watch as he interacts with his hero Tony Stark and a birdlike villain played by former Birdman Michael Keaton. The set pieces are suitably big but happily lower-stakes than most superhero films. (Only the last action sequence falls prey to the too-many-blurry-closeups school of superhero storytelling, and even then the film manages to stop itself before it goes too far down that road.)
You'll see some folks try to claim that Homecoming is a tribute to John Hughes movies, but that's stretching it. While the film does focus on the relationships between Peter Parker's peer group (say that five times fast), it's by no means a romance, or a quiet, character-driven story. Instead, it deepens and investigates the Marvel Universe's impact on ground-level citizens in a meaningful way. Keaton's bad guy has an honor to him, and though he's not as fully developed as Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus was in Spider-Man 2, he's certainly one of the better Marvel villains.
But while the film has at least one huge homage to a Ditko moment, it's Romita Spider-Man through-and-through. Parker is portrayed as a nerd, but aside from one comic-relief bully, you get the sense that he's still respected by his classmates. His relationship with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, wildly charming) is healthy. He doesn't feel like too much of a freak when he teams up with other superheroes. (Remember, Ditko's Spider-Man tried to join the Fantastic Four in his first issue, but when he found out that they didn't pay well, he threw a hissy fit and acted in an otherwise very unheroic manner.)
I wasn't super-impressed with the last few superhero pilot outings from Marvel. I thought both Ant-Man and Doctor Strange were perfectly respectable, if relatively bland, outings. Homecoming is much better than both those films, though it does certainly feel like yet another installment in a never-ending story.
That's okay, though. Whichever Spider-Man you prefer, Ditko's or Romita's, you have to admit that both are well-crafted comics. It's kind of the same thing here: after a dry spell of three bad movies, it's heartening to see a talented group of artists get their hands on the character again. Even if this Spider-Man is a little too friendly for your liking, you have to at least love him a little bit.
I read the first issue of Mother Panic, a comic from My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way's Young Animal imprint of DC Comics, when it was first released over half a year ago. I didn't think too much of it — the comic suffered from first-issue-itis, wherein a lot of things happened but we weren't told why we should care.
Last week, DC published the first collected volume of Mother Panic. Titled A Work in Progress, the book collects the first six issues of the series. When read all together like this, the story is good enough to make me feel embarrassed for giving up on the series too soon.
Mother Panic is a weirder, more experimental B-side to the character of Batman. It begins with a young celebutante named Violet Paige who returns home to Gotham City after some time away. When Paige isn't posing for the paparazzi, she's putting on a costume and acting out her vigilante fantasies on the streets of Gotham.
But while Batman and his attendant bat-heroes all dress in shadowy blacks, Mother Panic wears head-to-toe white. Her head is concealed behind a giant pointy white helmet. She wears enormous white gauntlets. While Batman is haunted by his dead parents, Mother Panic is haunted by her living mother — her brain addled by early onset Alzheimer's, Paige's mother lives in a fairy-tale land constructed in Paige's mazelike home, never quite making sense but still providing guidance through her cryptic observations. ("Here. Sometimes the audience should get flowers," she says early on in the series, as though she's talking right to the reader.)
If superheroes represent wish fulfilment, then Batman appeals to people who want total control over every situation. While Batman is all about control, Mother Panic is kind of a mess. She screws up a lot and shouts "FUCK FUCK FUCK!" when things don't work out. She shouts "FUCK YOU, TOO" at whichever agent of Batman happens to be spying on her at any given moment. She's all id and art, the flipped coin to Batman's boring overpreparation. I'd much rather be a Mother Panic than a Batman — deep down, I think she's having more fun.
The first two issues of the book, illustrated by Tommy Lee Edwards, are my favorite. Edwards' style is perfect for the character: he draws with a severe line that belies a certain cartoonishness rubbing just under the surface. Later issues are drawn by Shawn Crystal, who has a looser, more caricatured style. Both artists keep things nice and claustrophobic, rarely ever giving us a pulled-back shot. These are close quarters, and we are up in every character's face, with colorists Jean-Francois Beaulieu's deep reds and angry purples giving everything a certain cast of danger.
While most Batman-adjacent characters replicate the character's formula without much variation, Mother Panic feels like a weird interpretation of the idea — Batman run through Google Translate and back a few times, or set to a rumba beat, or played at 1.5 speed. It's one of the most interesting variations on the character that I've seen since Grant Morrison stopped writing Batman. I want more weird modern melodrama like this in my superheroes.
The following is an email we received from a reader named Joaquin de la Puente:
A question for Paul Constant: I just read your review of Josh Bayer's Atlas #1 and found it uninformed and irresponsible. You didn't seem to research this book or the line that it is a part of. The entire All Time Comics universe is written by Josh Bayer who is a lauded and prolific figure in underground comics. His work has been mostly self-published and this series on Fantagraphics represents his most high-profile release to date.
Josh's work is steeped in reverence for the "paid by the page" writers of the early comics industry. Usually he does his writing, art, including pencils, ink and color and publishes himself. But with this universe he wanted to create a homage to the Marvel-style Bullpens of a different era. This with the goal of employing some senior and upcoming artists that collaborate to make a finished title. Each All Time Comics release, all set within a universe and continuity in which there are so far four superheroes and dozens of auxiliary characters, has at least two alternate covers by different artists, a different artist who does pencils, another that does inks, another lettering, another that does colors with Josh as writer/editor and Fantagraphics as publisher.
This collaborative effort is a tribute to the sometimes amazing and sometimes grotesque work that came out of the comics industry in its early days. So when you write this review and call it "useless", "none of it matters", "there is no point", "the first out and out failure in a decade" etc... you are doing so at the expense and in apparent ignorance of the intent of the comics line which is to honor the collaborative, working-class, sometimes assembly-line approach to the classic comic tradition that made "underground comics" and graphic novels possible.
So my question is: "Why do you hate comics?" This and the whole All Time Comics line is a labor of love by people who have lived and breathed comics for their entire lives. In fact, Crime Destroyer, Part of the ATC series, was the final work of comic veteran Herb Trimpe who loved the work being done and said he felt honored to be working with All Time Comics. All Time Comics could be the beginnings of a line that has some longevity and ability to create some more great work and employ artists and writers for some time to come.
For you to outright condemn ATC without context harms that possibility but perhaps more importantly to you, it comes across like you didn't do your homework and need to take a comics history and appreciation course. The review reminds me of music reviews by writers that couldn't wrap their heads around Bob Dylan going electric, The Clash doing reggae, Devo, Elvis, Stravinsky, Shostakovich or any tradition-bucking work. The review ultimately comments more on you and your lack of historical context for this type of work...and I would say feels like it is dripping with the type of contempt you accuse Atlas #1 of having.
I guess the real question is: What is the intent of this type of review? To express your contempt for the artists and writers or the type of people that would read this kind of "ugly" work? It feels like both of those things which is why I said the review felt irresponsible. You insult a hypothetical audience you don't understand when you "can’t imagine the circumstances that would allow someone to enjoy this kind of thing." But really, I'm honestly curious, what is the intent of this type of review?
First of all, thanks for writing! I’m always happy to read thoughtful feedback from readers. Your email brings up a lot of important questions about my responsibility as a critic — something it’s really important to investigate on a regular basis.
So let’s start with context. I am aware of the backstory of the All Time Comics line. (I said it looked like “a lot of fun” when it was announced seven months ago). I know who Josh Bayer is, and I’ve been reading Herb Trimpe’s comics since I was a little kid in the early 1980s. Though I have no doubt he was a nice guy and a consummate professional, Trimpe’s work has never done anything for me, particularly his Liefeldian reinvention in the 1990s, which I found to be spectacularly ugly.
So the question your email raises for me is: is it my responsibility to provide background and context for everything I review? I don’t think so. Reviewers aren’t doing PR for publishers and authors. It’s not our job to explain the intent behind the book. It’s our responsibility to share our opinion about what’s on the page.
When I write my comics column, the question I often have in my mind is: if someone picks up this comic with no prior knowledge, what will they think of it? Because frankly, if someone needs to understand three paragraphs of backstory before they can enjoy the first issue of a comic series, that comic series isn’t doing its job. Serialized comics — the sort that Atlas is supposed to be mimicking — need to be as accessible as possible to new readers; if all that information you gave me was essential to enjoying the comic, it should’ve been included in the comic.
I’ve been reading comics my entire life, and I was a teenager in the late 80s/early 90s, which is the era that All Time Comics seems to be emulating. Even at the time, I wasn’t much of a fan of the assembly line style of comics production. (I gave up on Lee/Liefeld comics when I accidentally bought the same issue of the X-Tinction Agenda crossover twice in two weeks because the cover was so bland and forgettable.) So admittedly, I’m probably not the target audience for All Time Comics. (But I’m not alone in disliking mainstream comics from the 1990s; it’s more than a little weird that Fantagraphics is trafficking in nostalgia for comics that they openly mocked as garbage the first time around.)
The most compelling argument you make for All Time Comics is that it provides money and opportunity for comics veterans who have been forgotten by Marvel and DC Comics. But why did that money and opportunity have to come in the form of a rehash of their earlier work? Why ceremoniously load them back onto the corporate comics hamster-wheel? Why not ask them to do something new? I would’ve loved to see what comics Herb Trimpe might have made if he was offered carte blanche by a comics publisher; instead, he just rehashed some of the worst work of his career.
As to your argument that I’m the equivalent of a critic missing out on Dylan going electric: I mean, that risk comes with the job. (I am not a Bob Dylan fan, so I expect I wouldn’t have had an opinion one way or the other about him going electric.) It’s not a critic’s job to be “right” 100 percent of the time. Hell, here’s a little secret: when it comes to art, there is no right or wrong. Your opinion, Joaquin, is just as valid as mine. Isn’t that awesome? I think it’s pretty awesome.
But there is a line from the column that I regret, and I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to address it. I could even tell that I wasn’t happy with the line when I was writing it, but the deadline was breathing down my neck and I let it slide. Here it is: “I can’t imagine the circumstances that would allow someone to enjoy this kind of thing.”
To me, that sentence crosses a critical line. It’s not my job to worry about whether you like the book or not, or how you like the book, or why you like the book. It's not my job to speak for you, or any other fan. In that sentence I was expanding my agency beyond myself and putting it into an imagined readership for the book. I was giving myself more power than I have, and that was an unfair thing to do in a review. I wish I hadn’t included that line.
But as to everything else? Yeah, I stand by it. I think Atlas was an ugly, poorly written book. I do think it’s the worst thing Fantagraphics has published in years. I would not recommend it to anyone.
At the same time, Joaquin, I’m happy that you like the book, and that you cared enough about it to start a conversation with me on its behalf. I’m especially thrilled that you decided to stand up for the art that you believe in. This back-and-forth is exactly what criticism should be about. Thank you for that reminder.
Tomorrow, Tatiana Gill will release her new comic Wombgenda at the Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery as part of the Comics & Medicine Conference. Over the last couple of years, Gill has become one of Seattle's best, and most prolific, autobiographical cartoonists, and Wombgenda collects some of her latest work — most of it related to women's health, but with some current events mixed in.
The three long pieces in Wombgenda address Gill's journey to developing a positive body image, her abortion story, and an account of getting a new IUD at Country Doctor. Her style in these strips is very reminiscent of Seattle cartoonist Roberta Gregory's autobiographical comics from the 1990s — simple figures, little to no backgrounds, and a lot of words packed into every panel. They feel something like handwritten letters from a friend — confessional, intimate, exuberant, and heartfelt.
Most of Gill's stories are about discovery: learning she's not alone, figuring out what to do to solve a problem, looking into the basic day-to-day processes of a doctor who specializes in women's health. If you are a woman wrestling with body image issues, or unwanted pregnancy, or other health issues and these comics land in your hands at just the right moment, they could easily be the most important comics you'll ever read in your life. If you are not any of those things, Gill's specificity — her confident voice and strident curiosity — can help put a face on an issue in a way that might change your perspective. And isn't that what non-fiction comics are all about?
The other material in Wombgenda mostly hews to political spot illustrations drawn from the tradition of American World War II propaganda posters. (I like the one of Lady Justice and Lady Liberty flipping a rich guy's chair over with the caption "Let's work together and overthrow the patriarchy.") She also includes a page of love notes to cartoonist women from Seattle who influenced her, giving the comic the air of a 1990s fanzine.
Maybe one day, Gill will get a fancy book deal from a big New York publisher to do a graphic memoir and she'll disappear for a few years while she works on her magnum opus. But for now, we're lucky to have her out in the streets of Seattle, attending our protests, telling the stories of women, capturing everyday life in a city that's always changing. She's telling this city's stories, and we're lucky to have her.
I just bought it last night, but I'm pretty sure that Atlas #1 is the ugliest comic book I own. Only the cover, a sensitive piece by Anders Nilson featuring the titular hero holding a charred corpse while floating in a smoggy yellow haze, is aesthetically pleasing.
But flip past the cover, and the rest of this book is ugly as sin: the coloring is garish and sloppy, the art style is childlike and aggressive, and the writing is opportunistic and so drenched in irony that it's impossible to tell if it's a joke, or a joke about a joke, or if it's supposed to be taken entirely straight. But the worst part of this ugly book is that it's published by a press that makes some of the world's most beautiful books — Seattle's own Fantagraphics Books.
Atlas is part of Fantagraphics' All Time Comics initiative, a nostalgia line intended to evoke the Marvel and DC Comics of the mid-1980s. All Time has even hired many of the creators from that time and put them back to work drawing books. Even the "ads" for Atari 2600-style video games on the back cover look like they were originally published in the 80s.
But the book is positively dripping with contempt. Is it contempt for the audience? For the mainstream comics that inspired the All Time line? For the superhero-infested popular culture around all of us at all times? Unclear. The contempt seems to fly in all directions. Nobody is clean.
There's no point trying to explain the plot of Atlas. A superhero strikes a congressman in public and is then sent to jail. Meanwhile Atlas's friends are being burned alive. Somebody has to pay. Atlas pretends to be the center chapter in a long, ongoing superhero story, with an imaginary continuity stretching back decades.
But the truth is, none of that matters. The only noteworthy thing about Atlas #1 is how ugly it is — how offensive it is to the eye. Everyone's anatomy is misshapen. Panels frame grimacing close-ups and the dialogue strains against itself on every page:
Tobey! No!! You stupid kid!! What have you done?! I can't protect you in this godforsaken place! I can't even help myself right now! Tobey could DIE here! ANYTHING could happen. He doesn't know WHAT kinds of MONSTERS we're locked up with!
It's all like that: clunky and hammy and willfully dumb. I can't imagine the circumstances that would allow someone to enjoy this kind of thing. Sometimes Fantagraphics' reach exceeds its grasp, but this is the first out-and-out failure I've seen from them in over a decade.
The future of comic books is not superheroes; it’s young adult fiction. If you look back on the last fifteen years or so of popular comics bestsellers, it’s pretty easy to track the direction of reader and creator interest, from Mark Millar to Bryan Lee O’Malley to Faith Erin Hicks. It’s not as big a shift as, say, the death of the western novel, but it’s definitely there: whereas comics used to be serialized monthly to large and eager audiences, we’re seeing more and more trilogies starring young characters (mostly girls) released in large chunks once a year or so.
The latest example of the YA push in comics is Spill Zone, a sci-fi adventure comic written by Scott Westerfeld and illustrated by Alex Puvilland. Westerfeld, a bestselling YA novelist, has clearly done a lot of thinking about how to tell a story with comics: the world-building in Spill Zone is elegant without being overly expository.
Recently, an accident tore a hole in reality in the middle of a town in upstate New York. The authorities did all the usual things they do in case of a disaster: call in the military, cordon off the affected area, and keep the looky-loos away. But while the disaster isn’t spreading, it’s not going away, either. An aura of normalcy has crept back in to the situation.
Meanwhile, a young woman named Addie has been going on excursions into what’s now called the Spill Zone. As imaginative as Westerfeld’s descriptions of the Spill Zone might have been, credit must go to Puvilland for bringing those descriptions to the page: this is not your standard “weird” comics land, where all the monsters are brown and lasers fly around in the background. The Spill Zone feels like a land where anything is possible: step in the wrong place and you become 2D. Turn the wrong corner and an abstract expressionist wolf might eat you. Get too close to the mandala constructed out of floating bowling pins and ... well, who knows what’ll happen?
But a great deal of the credit for Spill Zone’s eeriness must go to colorist Hilary Sycamore, who renders the otherworldly neighborhood in flat, ugly colors that would not seem out of place in a 1970s kitchen. These olives and burnt umbers and swirling urine-yellow tendrils make it so a reader can flip through the book and tell with just a glance which parts of the story take place in the real world and which happen in the Spill Zone. It’s not a flashy coloring choice — one blanches to think what an early-2000s colorist drunk on computer effects might have done — but it’s brilliant. The comics business is full of great colorists right now, but Sycamore has to be one of the best.
Of course, since the next volume in Addie’s story won’t be published until next year, it’s impossible to determine whether Spill Zone is the great start of a great story or the promising opening chapter of a dud. But in terms of sheer world-building bravado and technical prowess, this book is worth your attention, as full of energy and imagination and enthusiasm for the comics form as any superhero comic I’ve read in the last few years.
It's a kind of nerdception: Rise of the Dungeon Master is a biography of Gary Gygax, inventor of Dungeons & Dragons, told in comic book form. Writer David Kushner and artist Koren Shadmi do excellent work transforming what could be an incredibly dry subject — Gygax's slow construction of Dungeons & Dragons from pieces of miniatures-based military reenactment games — into a breezy biographical story. Rise is a book that shouldn't work, for several important reasons.
It's told in second person. While just about any writing instructor would urge a biographer to not write a book with "you" as a subject, second-person works here because it follows the format of a Dungeons & Dragons game. ("Your mother also fills your imagination with adventure," the captions inform Gygax like a Dungeon Master equipping a player for an oncoming battle, "she reads you Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.")
Shadmi's art is very cartoony. Realism isn't necessary for a biography — Peter Bagge, with his rubber-armed figures, has somehow become one of our best comics biographers — but the mundanity of Gygax's upbringing and the gaudy muscularity of Dungeons & Dragons would seem to call for realism. Instead, Shadmi's likenesses, with their big, rounded Disney faces and their exaggerated poses, somehow add to the familiarity of Gygax's story, making him more relatable.
There's not too much of a narrative arc. The story follows D&D's meteoric rise in popularity and its controversial period in the 1980s when it became associated with Satanism and juvenile delinquency, but generally not too much happens in the story. Gygax is a dedicated process nerd who invents the game, and it quickly becomes an American standard.
Despite these seeming drawbacks, Rise works on multiple levels. Kushner ingeniously compares D&D to an operating system, and that metaphor instantly gives the story of the game a more familiar shape. At this point in the 21st century, we know the story of the successful Silicon Valley startup by heart, and that tech creation narrative lends its own drama to D&D's history, adding a friction that other accounts of Gygax's life don't really enjoy.
One major flaw of Rise comes in a choice with the book's lettering. The second-person narration captions are the same basic shape as the captions that contain Gygax's quotes, often leading to a confusing mishmash of perspectives, switching back and forth from "I" to "you" without much of a visual difference besides some ragged caption borders. A stronger visual cue, such as putting quotes in rounded word balloons rather than square ones, would make for an easier, less-muddled reading experience.
But aside from a few stumbles caused by that muddled narration, Rise is a chatty book that neither wallows nor sidesteps its subject's inherent wonkiness. D&D nerds and novices alike can find new information here. It's a miracle of explanatory storytelling, and it builds to a climax that is artful and genuinely affecting. This biography is more than just a series of things that happened — it's a celebration of a genuinely new invention that changed the course of history.
I haven’t had much to say about superhero movies lately — sorry, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, it’s not you, it’s me — but I do agree with the consensus that the movies made from DC Comics superheroes have been disastrous. Batman V Superman was one of the worst blockbusters I’ve ever seen. Suicide Squad was even worse. I’ll be watching the Wonder Woman movie when it debuts at Cinerama in a couple of weeks, but that feels more like an act of obligation: I want to support the first female superhero movie in a generation, even though Gal Gadot has never once ever successfully, in the technical sense of the word, acted.
The most confusing thing about the failure of DC Comics to transition to film is that there’s already a perfect prototype out there for the producers to emulate: Melissa Benoist’s performance in the weekly Supergirl TV show. In the 80s and 90s, superhero movies were always trapped in a tug-of-war between the two opposing poles of dark-n-gritty (think the first Tim Burton Batman) and campy (think the Joel Schumacher Batman Forever). Benoist’s performance as Supergirl finds a new, third way: she’s earnest but serious, happy but determined. Sure, the effects on Supergirl are cheesy, but even when it’s at its worst, Benoist’s performance holds the whole damn show together.
DC’s stable of characters — more colorful and goofy than Marvel’s — should more or less follow Benoist’s lead. These are over-the-top sci-fi concepts from the 1950s; the concern is not taking them seriously. It’s about believing in their character. Benoist gets that. The people adapting DC Comics to film, sadly, don’t.
The new collection of Supergirl comics from DC, Reign of the Cyborg Superman, unfortunately, doesn’t have Benoist’s charm, either. To the credit of writer Steve Orlando and artists Brian Ching, Emanuela Lupacchino, and Ray McCarthy, they’re rightly shooting for the optimism and the youthful vivaciousness of the TV show. Unfortunately, the comic is kind of a mess.
Reign establishes a world that mimics the basic status quo of the Supergirl TV show, introducing characters and situations that viewers will find very familiar. But it feels kind of like a mess, with some occasionally lively artwork obscured by Michael Atiyeh’s muddy coloring, and a plot that tries too hard to emulate the ALL CAPS APOCALYPSE feel of a superhero movie. The villain of the piece — Supergirl’s father, who for some reason looks like a cyborg Superman — is way too broad. But to Orlando’s credit, the book ends on a high note, with Supergirl nailing the hope and courage of her TV version. And thankfully the art doesn’t objectify Supergirl with the leering 90s male gaze that has dogged the character over the last couple decades. There’s room for improvement here.
But Supergirl isn’t the only female superhero DC is publishing these days. They’ve also got a new Superwoman character, and her first adventures are collected in a new paperback titled Who Killed Superwoman? While Supergirl is Superman’s Kryptonian cousin, the stars of Superwoman are two of superman’s love interests: Lois Lane and Lana Lang, who have both been given powers somehow — it’s not important — and who are teaming up to cover for a seemingly deceased Superman’s absence.
In case you can’t tell, there’s a lot of continuity at play in Superwoman, but you don’t have to read a dozen other books to understand what’s going on here. Writer Phil Jiminez takes a delightfully old-school approach to his superhero comics: he welcomes the weirdly intricate decades-old relationships between characters, but he also explains the important stuff to the readers in the course of the story. It’s accessible, while still hinting at the sixty years of backstory available to curious readers.
Without giving too much away, the story introduces a couple of villains unique to the book while addressing the question of what it means to do the right thing, even if it kills you. Emanuela Lupacchino’s art is better-served on this title than on Supergirl, giving her time to invest emotionally in the characters and better frame out the surroundings. Jiminez draws several issues himself in his tight, George Perez-style 80s superhero comic style. For people who’ve been reading comics for decades, it’s a throwback delight that somehow still feels like a modern superhero comic. It’s also my favorite Superman-themed book that DC has published in years, an operatic riff on values and expectations and responsibility.
DC is also publishing the original female superhero, and I’m happy to report that the second paperback of Wonder Woman comics is terrific. Just in time for the movie, writer Greg Rucka and artist Nicola Scott have told an origin story for Wonder Woman that audiences will find to be compelling and modern and fun. (Yes, even though there’s a number “2” on the spine, Year One is an origin story and can be read on its own. Sometimes comics are dumb.)
Generally, I’m against retelling origin stories in comics; my philosophy is just murder the parents in a flashback and get on with the story. But Wonder Woman has needed a good origin story for just about her entire life as a character, and Rucka succeeds where so many others have failed by making her eminently relatable.
Yes, this Wonder Woman is wildly powerful. Yes, she bests all of her fellow Amazons in hand-to-hand combat. But she’s also a total nerd, and when she first comes into contact with our modern world she can’t speak English, which gives her a relatable vulnerability. When she goes to a mall, she’s overwhelmed by all the sights and sounds and smells. (She asks a translator, “Why does the air taste this way?”) She’s tough and curious and exuberant, expecting the best and preparing for the worst.
Scott is a gifted superhero artist. She can capture difficult emotions like a flicker of nostalgia on a person’s face, but she can also draw an iconic double-page spread of Wonder Woman, her blurry arms spread out around her, octopus-like, as her bracelets deflect bullets at super-speed. Scott often draws her from below, to cast her in a heroic light, and this simple trick doesn’t feel at all manipulative or cheap; Scott conveys the sense that she’s genuinely in awe of the character she’s drawing.
A lot is riding on the Wonder Woman film. In addition to its unique status as the first-ever female-starring superhero film of the modern era, it’s also the first to be directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins, director of Monster) and the last DC superhero film to be released before this fall’s team-up film Justice League. But even if the film is a disaster — by artistic standards, by box office standards, or both — Year One proves that the character of Wonder Woman will survive. There’s a lot of humanity yet to be explored.
Yesterday, I wrote that comics and cookbooks go together as perfectly as bread and butter. I also pointed out that no publisher has put together a truly great, comprehensive comics cookbook. In comments on Facebook, though, a few readers pointed out that there are some more comics recipes out there for you to enjoy.
Chris suggested Tyler Capps's weekly comic strip Cooking Comically. I hadn't heard of this one before. Capps uses a blend of photography and comics to lay out his recipes. I'd appreciate a little more cartooning in his strip — the process could be slightly more stretched out and explained more thoroughly — but it's a neat blog and I happily subscribed to it.
Queen Anne Book Company bookseller Tegan recommended a vegetarian cookbook called Dirt Candy, by Amanda Cohen, Ryan Dunlavey, and Grady Hendrix. This one looks like a graphic novel. Here, from the Dirt Candy website, is a sample of a couple pages:
Now, maybe this will make more sense once I actually look at the book. But I don't understand why you'd have a whole book told in comics form and then switch over to prose for the recipes before switching back to comics again. Still, I'm excited to check this book out! I'm not a vegetarian, but I do love to cook and eat vegetarian meals, and this book looks like an interesting hybrid.
And Alex said that Cook Korean! A Comic Book with Recipes by Robin Ha is getting great reviews. This one does look very close to my idea for a good comics cookbook. Get a load of this chunk of a full-page spread showing off a Korean refrigerator (The next page in the book explains what everything is:)
While none of these three recommendations quite fit the bill of what I was talking about in my post, they're certainly very close, and they demonstrate that people are playing around with the form. I think this proves that the field of cookbook recipes is rapidly advancing, and one day soon I will have my dream book on my cookbook shelf.
Most importantly, thanks to Chris, Tegan, and Alex for the tips! These are all great recommendations. I'm excited to have a new weekly cooking blog to read, and the next time I'm out I'll definitely check out these two books. If I have any thoughts on Dirt Candy or Cook Korean! after checking them out, I'll share them here. And if you have any other recommendations, please feel free to drop us a line on Facebook.
UPDATE 10:55 AM: And in the Facebook comments to this post, Seattle cartoonist Colleen Frakes writes:
The Trees & Hills Comics Group has put out a couple of comic anthologies about food/recipes, one was "Seeds" (that one had my egg drop soup recipe. I cook a lot of soups) and the newer one is called "Sprouts". Saveur was also running comic recipes for a while.
Ordinarily, I use this space to write about the comics that I've read over the past week. But this Saturday is Free Comic Book Day — that nationwide celebration of the belief that there's a comic out there for everyone — and so we're going to look forward for a change. If you've never participated before, you should know that it's pretty simple: walk into the store, get some comics for free. If you have questions, ask the staff.
Where should you go? Well, there's a map of all the participating shops here. But a lot of local stores are throwing special events, too. A partial list:
Comics Dungeon in Wallingford will be hosting local cartoonists all day. I spoke with the Dungeon's owner Scott Tomlin about his plans — and the exciting new literacy nonprofit behind his shop — earlier this week.
From 11 am to 3 pm, Phoenix Comics and Games on Broadway will host Seattle comics writer G. Willow Wilson — who was recently the subject of a terrific New Yorker profile and the driving force behind a very good conversation about faith on the Ezra Klein Show — along with cartoonist Kazu Kibuishi and author/translator Zack Davisson.
Downtown's Zanadu Comics is throwing a big sale and handing out special coupons all day long. If you regularly buy comics in Seattle, you should stop by Zanadu and buy a comic or two; the store has recently fallen on tough financial times and they've been running a GoFundMe to stay afloat. They've still got some of the best selection in town, and they could use a little love.
Arcane Comics, which last year moved just across the Seattle border to Shoreline, is hosting local cartoonists Jen Vaughn, Chris Sheridan, and Tatiana Gill.
There are plenty of other shops, too, including Fremont's Outsider Comics & Geek Boutique, the Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery in Georgetown, Dreamstrands Comics & Collectibles in Greenwood, Golden Age Collectibles in the Pike Place Market (which I just now learned from their website claims to be America's oldest comics shop,) and The Dreaming Comics & Games in the U District.
And what should you pick up? Well, you can find a full list of the Free Comic Book Day books here, and there's something for most everyone's taste. But here are a couple to look out for:
Obviously, you should read the Fantagraphics collection World's Greatest Cartoonists, which features a bunch of artists from the Fantagraphics stable including Emil Ferris, Noah Van Sciver, and Simon Hanselmann.
If you're unfamiliar with the weird and wonderful collaborations between French cartoonist Moebius and the great director Alejandro Jodorowsky, this sampler of their comic The Incal should definitely be on your list.
The Colorful Monsters collection has just about everything a kid could want, including some Moomin comics, monsters, and hot air balloons.
Cartoonist Kate Beaton loves the all-ages comic Bad Machinery, and this sampler is a good introduction to the series, about some young crime-solvers. In this caper, they encounter Communists and a very anachronistic person.
Have fun out there! Stay hydrated, get some free comics, maybe buy a comic or two, and follow along with us on Instagram as we travel around to some of our favorite shops.
Not so very long ago, if you were a kid and you wanted to read comics, you had a couple of choices: you could either read superhero comics, or you could read Archie comics. Now, the young adult comics scene is positively thriving. Teens can find realistic comics, fantasy comics, sci-fi comics, adventure comics, and romance comics in just about any comic book store.
In the last month, Image Comics has released a pair of new YA books that demonstrate the breadth and depth of the field. These direct-to-paperback books are a bit of a departure for the publisher — unlike most of Image’s output, they weren’t originally published in monthly serialized format — but hopefully they represent a new initiative for Image, because they’re excellent examples of the form.
Kid Savage, written by comics veteran Joe Kelly and illustrated by the one-named and all-capped ILYA, is the most plainly high-concept of the two. It’s basically the family from Lost in Space if they adopted a pint-size Tarzan on their travels, with a reality-show twist. This volume is essentially an origin story, crashing the family on a primitive planet and pitting them against (and eventually alongside) the titular wild human.
Kid Savage is an appealing package. ILYA’s art is dynamic and expressive, with lots of bold lines and nuanced facial expressions from all the characters. (A couple of the action sequences, however, are very difficult to follow.) And Kelly does a fun tweak on the father-knows-best convention of traditional sci-fi by making the father of the spacefaring clan a bit of a hand-wringing boob who’s plagued by self-doubt and riddled with guilt. The son and daughter are forced to be the adults because the mom’s out of the picture, but that dynamic is immediately set into doubt when they run across a character who is basically nothing but raging id. It’s a good start to what is hopefully a series of sci-fi survival adventures.
The other book from Image, Afar, defies easy description. It’s about a brother and sister in a post-apocalyptic society, but it’s not another example of the dreary survivalist yarns that have taken YA hostage over the last decade. The sister, Boetema, discovers that she has a fascinating power: when she sleeps, her consciousness comes to life in the body of an alien, somewhere else in the universe. Boetema inhabits the consciousnesses of beings like her (a humanoid race in an advanced civilization) and not like her (a squidlike creature wrapped in a sack at the bottom of a fishing boat) and she seems to have no ability to control what world she finds herself on next.
Afar is a cosmic space fantasy that also incorporates a complex political dynamic as the siblings try to survive in a punishing desert culture. With her head in the stars, Boetema finds it more and more stressful to take care of her brother while also intermingling her consciousness with alien cultures halfway across the universe. It’s a perfect read for those kids who are perennially daydreaming, because it’s a story about what you can do when you allow your mind to wander.
Young readers will find the story, by Leila Del Duca, to be dense and rewarding. But the art by Kit Seaton is what will draw people in. Seaton is adept at conveying the ideas behind entire alien civilizations in just a handful of panels, and her skillful use of color and perspective keep Boetema’s “dream”-life clearly delineated from her “real”-life. There’s never any doubt where we are in the story at any point, which is a testament to Seaton’s ability to keep a reader grounded in a story that briefly features a planet of wizard-dogs.
This is the kind of book I wish I’d found in a school library when I was 15. Afar doesn’t just give readers a new, alien world; it introduces readers to ten of them, and inspires them to wonder about all the possibilities out there in the great big universe.
Yesterday, I was planning to pick up the first issue of Secret Empire, the new Marvel Comics crossover. (Technically, it was issue #0; the first issue of Secret Empire — as in the issue marked "#1" — is due on May 3rd. If you're already confused, I apologize for what I'm about to put you through.) Every once in a while I like a big superhero crossover if it's handled well, and I enjoyed Nick Spencer's run on Ant-Man a while ago. Seemed worth a shot. But then I saw this tweet by Marvel editor Tom Brevoort:
A quick semi-word of warning for this week's books: the three Opening Salvo issues are meant to be read before Secret Empire #0.— Tom Brevoort (@TomBrevoort) April 18, 2017
And because of that tweet, I didn't bother to pick up Secret Empire #0. If the first issue — sorry, the zero issue — of a series requires a "semi-word of warning" that three other books should be read beforehand, I can't really be bothered.
Look, I appreciate that superhero comics are a serialized storytelling medium. The minute a story has a conclusive ending, there's no reason for readers to pick up the next installment. But I do expect a story to make sense in and of itself, with a beginning, a middle, and some semblance of an ending. If the beginning of a book requires advance reading, it's not really a beginning.
Or let me use another example from a different publisher. I found the first collected volume of Detective Comics from DC's Rebirth line, Rise of the Batmen, to be a lot of fun. It's basically a Batman superhero team book, in which Batman must assemble a team including the formerly villainous Clayface and three interesting female characters from other Batman-themed books — Batwoman, Spoiler, and the Orphan (who used to be Batgirl) — to fend off an insidious Batman-themed threat.
Rise of the Batmen is mostly a good example of serialized superhero comics done right. The bad guys have a clear motivation, the heroes all have distinct personalities, and it's all terrifically, deliciously silly. Sure, it's a bit too goth — it is a Batman comic, after all — but it's brisk and entertaining and it never takes itself too seriously.
But then comes the ending. One of the characters supposedly dies. But then a page or two later we find out this character — gasp — didn't die after all! Par for the course for superhero comics. Except the character didn't die because they were plucked from the death scene by someone in another dimension or something, a bad guy who had nothing to do with the rest of the book.
Presumably, this plot device is setting up a crossover in some other, future DC Comic further down the line. But if you're reading this book as a book — which is to say you're expecting it to have a beginning, a middle, and an end — you're going to be incredibly disappointed. This isn't a fair ending. It's not a surprise, or a twist. A reader couldn't be expected to know what the hell is going on here without reading a ton of other comics. It's not even a deus ex machina; it's a non sequitur.
I love the fact that superhero comics never end, but I hate the fact that superhero comics are now absurdist echoes of themselves. Comics in the 60s and 70s and 80s used to catch readers up and explain the intricate mythologies behind the characters along the way. I understand that fashions change, and that the exposition-heavy comics from decades ago now read as impossibly clunky.
But surely there must be some way to convey the dense mythology of superhero comics gracefully? One thing comics are great at is broadcasting a lot of information in a relatively small amount of space. Modern superhero comics are all about withholding information, and demanding that the reader invest in dozens of books in order to understand what's going on. This philosophy is not only anti-new-reader; it's anti-comics.
Like so many of the best books, I found it hidden behind a couple outdated computer programming manuals in a Goodwill. It’s a tall, slim hardcover book with a torn dustjacket. The cover is a soulful color sketch of a tiny figure standing on a roof staring out at a cloudy night sky. It says in big letters at the top, The Man, and below that, in smaller print, the author credit: Raymond Briggs.
You likely know Raymond Briggs for his wordless children’s book The Snowman, but Briggs has a long and colorful publishing history. He’s written and drawn dozens of books, and he’s been publishing from the 1960s to, most recently, 2015. Many of his books — including The Man — are out of print in the United States.
Because they deal almost exclusively in the interaction of words and pictures, most children’s literature is, in some form or another, comics. But Briggs’s work shares more of a common vocabulary with modern comics than most other authors for children. His books have multiple panels per page, and dialogue often depicted in word balloons, and the work features other comics traits that you don’t find in more “traditional” kid’s lit.
The Man, though, is a little bit of a departure for Briggs in format: the book features experimental layouts — often with one large illustration per page and dialogue typed out, in different fonts for each character, down the middle of the page. It’s less like a comic and more like a stage play. The book keeps its scope fairly intimate, too: it’s the story of a young boy who, one day, finds a bossy little naked man living in his room.
The man, who only answers to Man, demands that the boy fashion him some clothing out of an old sock and a rubber band, and then he proceeds to complain even more: “I wish you had real marmalade,” he whines when the boy smuggles some food up to him. When the boy wonders aloud if Man is a Borrower, he angrily spits, “Pah! Stories! I hate them.”
Man’s continual insistence quickly grates on the boy, and they begin to fight. “You exploit your smallness,” the boy yells at Man, “You know how to use it. You manipulate people by it. You manipulate me for your own selfish ends.” Man retorts, “You make out you are being kind, generous and caring when all you are doing is using my smallness for your own ENTERTAINMENT. You don’t care for me as a PERSON! To you, I’m just an entertaining NOVELTY!”
The Man’s tone is all over the place: it’s hilarious, and tense, and realistic, and more than a little upsetting. But it finally settles on a deep and melancholic sadness that speaks to the sacrifice we offer to others: even those we love most — those tiny people who show up naked and willful — can get on our very last nerves, and sometimes we lash out in uncomfortable ways. That’s a special kind of sorrow. The last page of The Man speaks to a sadness that I’ve never quite seen represented before in children’s fiction.
Briggs is no stranger to uncomfortable topics. Another of his out-of-print classics, When the Wind Blows, is, if anything, even more depressing than The Man. Wind is the story of an old British couple living in the countryside. They’re not especially deep or introspective people, but they’re law-abiding citizens who seem to enjoy each others’ company. One day, there’s an upsetting story in the news reports: nuclear war is breaking out.
A bomb drops not far from the couple, but far enough away that they’re not killed in the explosion. So they set about doing what any rule-following British citizens would do: they build a makeshift shelter in their home and they hunker down “for the 14 days of the National Emergency.”
Everything around them collapses — the radio stops working immediately and the nearby town’s supplies are wiped out soon after the first hit — but they continue living their lives: the wife wraps pillows in their shelter in plastic because “I don’t want finger marks getting all over them.”
Like The Man, Wind does not have a happy ending. Unlike The Man, Wind is well and truly apocalyptic. The couple start showing signs of radiation poisoning, but they still trust in the rules. “We’d better just lie here and wait for The Emergency Services to arrive,” the wife says. “Yes, they’ll take good care of us,” her husband replies as they huddle in potato sacks for warmth. “We won’t have to worry about a thing.” Those institutions will not save them. It’s dark. Really dark.
While not as bright as The Snowman, Briggs’s Fungus the Bogeyman is considerably lighter than either The Man or Wind. It’s the story of a bogeyman community that treasures the opposite of everything our society adores. Fungus’s wife wakes him at dusk on the first page of the book. “Time to get up, Fungus my dreary. It’s nearly dark.”
Fungus wakes up complaining: “OOOH! What a night that was! This bed has almost dried up!” His wife agrees, “I know, drear. It needs more slime.” Fungus walks over to a bin filled with cold water and pulls out his clothes for the day. A caption helpfully informs us, “Fungus inspects his trousers which have been marinading overnight." Fungus, his face inside a pair of pants, exclaims approvingly, “Mmmm! These really stink!”
Bogeyman follows Fungus through a typical day in his life. Throughout the book, captions explain Bogeyman culture, from the fact that they “cultivate boils on the back of the neck” to an account of the rotten grapefruit and “mouldy” cornflakes they eat for breakfast.
As an artist, Briggs is having a lot of fun here, experimenting with wild panel layouts and exaggerating the moribund dreariness of bogeydom culture. The expressionless dot eyes and upturned pig noses of his bogeymen give them a cartoonish appeal. It’s easy to imagine children falling into this book and being swept up in the many shades of sick-making green on every page, wondering at the intense oppositeness of Fungus’s world.
The best part of Bogeyman is how normal it all is. While Wind feels like a scathing refutation of humanity’s ability to remain docile in the face of global Armageddon, and while The Man revels in the way it upturns societal commitments, Bogeyman takes a sort of pleasure in the everyday rituals and cozy domesticity of its main characters. It’s unique in all of Briggs’s work in that it finds a sort of peace in its miserableness. It’s okay to be unhappy, Bogeyman says, as long as you’re okay with being unhappy — and don’t let anyone spread sunshine on your rained-out parade. It’s your party. You can cry if you want to.
Michael DeForge’s new book Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero begins with all the elements of a classic comic strip. You’ve got the flawed main character, Sticks Angelica, a know-it-all chatterbox who, feeling underappreciated by society, moves to the wilderness to be alone. She fancies herself a survivalist: “I run twenty kilometres every morning. On days I don’t bathe, I rub flowers on my armpits.” And she claims to live the life of a folk hero, wrestling bears when she’s bored and devising homeopathic cures for hangnails.
And then there’s the supporting cast: you’ve got assorted talking animals to keep her company, including a rabbit named Oatmeal who harbors a massive unrequited crush on Sticks. (“How I long to nibble on her earlobe; to eat a carrot out of her hands; to have her carry me into a shared room, which we decorated together.”) Her social circle includes a moose named Lisa Hanawalt who is not to be confused — or, hell, probably she is to be confused — with the cartoonist of the same name. In the background, you’ve got a chorus of simple-minded geese who run around haranguing each other. (“…But we’re geese. Not — not coyotes. Geese are supposed to be Canada’s most trustworthy creatures,” one scolds the other when they accidentally murder a fish. The other replies, “That’s just propaganda from the goose lobby.”)
It even looks like a comic strip collection: Sticks Angelica is laid out in a series of single-page gags, many of which made up of eight panels. For a while, the last panel on every page has a punchline centered around the characters, like, say, Garfield or Dilbert. And unlike those two comics, Sticks Angelica is actually funny.
But then Sticks Angelica starts to deconstruct itself. Sticks violently assaults a nosy reporter, buries him neck-deep in the ground, and leaves him there. That reporter’s name? Michael DeForge. Things get more and more surreal — beyond even the everyday comic-strip surreality of a world with talking animals. A few pages feature recipes for impossible foods like “Classic Monterey Kebab,” which includes a fish scale, a twig, and a precious flower skewered on a stick and heated over flame. We learn about the mating rituals of shape-shifting birds. Visually, DeForge creates whole panels made out of abstract shapes, with non-narrative captions laid over the top. Some of the pages are just tone poems.
Everybody in the book suffers. Sticks Angelica is eaten by bugs: “I’m covered in bites, rashes, sores… even if I wanted to come back to the city, I’m marked.” Michael DeForge is eventually dug up from his hole in the ground, but his body has atrophied to the point where it’s as thin and light as paper, so he floats around like a ghost, haunting the forest animals. A goose is killed by smoke inhalation after it swallows a worm whole and the worm builds a cabin in its gut, which then burns down in a fire.
It’s true that thanks to the deterioration of comics pages in recent years, even strips as banal as Mark Trail have become weirder and more disjointed, but Sticks Angelica is something else again. It’s a newspaper comic strip that has been visited by several Biblical plagues and survived them all out of sheer spite. Everything about the book, from the art to the characters to the plot, is designed to confound its readers’ expectations. It builds comedy out of heartbreak and spins tragedy out of gag strips. Just when you thought you’d seen everything that could be done with eight boxes, a cast of talking animals, and a punchline, along comes a book like Sticks Angelica to remind you that the form can be endlessly refreshed.