EIGHTBALL #16 (Fantagraphics, 1995) – A+. I can’t say I enjoyed this Shia LeBeouf comic, but its quality is indisputable.* This issue begins and ends with two short stories, “Like a Weed, Joe” and “Immortal, Invisible.” Both of these are brilliant short pieces, easily at the same level as LeBeouf’s best-known short story of the time, “Caricature.” Neither really has a strong plot, but they both create a sense of deep wrongness and disgust. Both of these stories really demand a closer reading than I have time for in order to unpack their layers of meaning. This issue also includes a third short story, “MCMXLVI,” which has beautifully painted artwork but, again, is rather disturbing because of the sexism and nostalgia of the unnamed main character. The issue also includes a chapter of “Ghost World,” which I already read a long time ago, and a strip on the inside front cover, “Squirrel-Girl and Candy-Pants,” which reads like a deliberate parody of Ghost World.
* This issue is not credited to Shia LeBeouf but to someone named Daniel Clowes. Clearly this is a pseudonym and the issue is Shia LeBeouf’s original work.
THE POWER OF SHAZAM! #18 (DC, 1996) – B+. This is the first issue of this seires I’ve read. While it is obviously not at the same level as the original Binder-Beck material or the Jeff Smith revival, this is a completely readable Captain Marvel story which captures at least some of the fun and excitement that are characteristic fo this franchise. It’s fun seeing Shazam trying to interact with modern society, and Jerry Ordway presents Mary Marvel as a capable and powerful heroine. I will plan on buying more issues of this series if I find them for under a dollar.
AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #528 (Marvel, 2006) – B+. My copy comes from a public library and is falling apart. There are some genuinely fun scenes here, especially the conversation between Peter and his old Jewish tailor Leo Zelinsky. However, I don’t really like the main plot here, in which Peter evolves various spider-based powers he didn’t have before. It just doesn’t seem all that original or fun. The other day I was surprised to see that JMS hadn’t made Comic Book Resources’s list of the top ten Spider-Man writers, because I remember when he won an Eisner for “Coming Home” and he was being hailed as the best Spidey writer since Roger Stern. After “Sins Past” and his Superman story “Grounded,” his reputation seems to have suffered a collapse of Shyamalan-esque proportions.
SAGA #17 (Image, 2013) – A+. This is another fantastic issue of the best comic book currently on the market, but its tone is very different from that of the last two issues. It’s been five issues and at least six months since the cliffhanger where Marco and Alana were holed up in the basement while Prince Robot interrogated D. Oswald Heist. The scenes at Oswald’s lighthouse were so blissfully peaceful that I’d forgotten Prince Robot was on his way. Now that peace has been shattered and I’m not sure that Oswald and The Will aren’t both dead. And not only that, Oswald’s library is in flames. I admire BKV and Staples’s ability to shift the tone of this series so completely in just one issue. Now that we’re past the point where issue 12 ended, I don’t know what’s going to happen next in this series, but I can’t wait to find out.
ASTRO CITY #7 (DC, 2014) – A+. I know there are historical reasons why Marvel and DC comics’ cover dates are two months in the future, but do those reasons still apply? Can’t they make the cover date the same as the publication date? Anyway, this is a brilliant issue and the start of what promises to be a fascinating storyline. Winged Victory (I’ll call her Vic as Samaritan does) was one of the earliest Astro City characters, but I don’t believe she’s received a major spotlight since issue 6 of the original miniseries, way back in 1996. Even that story, if I remember correctly, was told from Samaritan’s perspective. Here, though, we get to see inside her head, and Kurt makes use of this opportunity to pose some fascinating questions about gender politics. It’s well established that Vic is a champion of women’s empowerment and that she offers self-defense classes exclusively to women. But in this issue, she encounters a boy, Joey Lacroix, who’s been badly injured and is in serious need of self-defense training – we don’t find out why, but my guess is that he’s a victim of gay-bashing. There’s a fascinating dilemma here: he’s presented as a pitiful character who really needs help, yet Vic would be completely justified in refusing to help him. The healer Meg calls him “another freakin’ man, all fists and anger and eyes and privilege” (probably the first time the word “privilege” has been used in this sense in a DC comic), but does Joey represent a more positive model of masculinity?
And that’s just the start, because Vic is also the target of a very well- organized scheme to discredit her and to misrepresent her self-defense training program as a school for criminals. This reminds me eerily of the sort of anti-feminist discourse we see often in contemporary American media. And also, it turns out that Winged Victory literally gets her powers from having a support network of other women, which is kind of awesome. Overall, I think this issue is Astro City’s deepest exploration of feminist issues yet, and I can’t wait for more of it. However, I do wonder what the Confessor, who appears on the last page, has to do with anything.
Messick University and Tarpe Hall are obvious references to notable women cartoonists, and Joey’s hometown seems to be an Astro City version of Riverdale. It’s named after Al Hartley and has neighborhoods named for John Goldwater and Booth Tarkington, who (according to an old CBR post by my friend Kurt Mitchell) is the original creator of the teenager genre. The letter column includes a letter by someone who completely misunderstands what this comic is supposed to be about.
YOUNG AVENGERS #14 (Marvel, 2014) – B. I like the idea behind this issue, which consists of four vignettes drawn by different artists, but it felt kind of insubstantial compared to the last few issues. Maybe that’s because it’s only 20 pages. The Miss America segment, with gorgeous painted art by Christian Ward (I think), was easily the best. And Kate gets some pretty cool scenes. But there just didn’t seem to be enough story here, considering that this is the next to last issue. Notice the “Soft Kitty” reference at the bottom of the first page. I was annoyed that Karolina Dean and Julie Power both appeared in this issue but neither of them had any lines; oh well.
MY LITTLE PONY MICRO-SERIES #10 (IDW, 2013) – A+. The last issue of this series is easily one of the two best, along with #3, which coincidentally was also by Katie and Andy. This story is just so much fun. Such brilliant detail and so many sight gags and funny lines. I particularly loved watching Tiberius the opossum’s antics in almost every panel (though his name and origin are not explained until the backup story). There’s not much of a serious message here, but what a fun comic.
INVINCIBLE #107 (Image, 2013) – A+. This issue leaves me with a deep feeling of dread. We have known for a while that Rex (I keep confusing this character with Rex Dexter from Savage Dragon) is an utterly loathsome monster and that he has nefarious plans for Mark. In this issue, it becomes clear that Rex is trying to get Mark out of the way by sending him on a wild-goose chase after Angstrom Levy, while Rex takes advantage of his absence to do God knows what. And this plan works because as an expectant father, Mark is paranoid about perceived threats to his family, which blinds him to other threats he’s not expecting. Meanwhile, Amanda is the only character who might be able to stop Rex, but she is equally unable to see how awful he is. It all makes so much sense from a psychological standpoint, which makes it even more terrifying. The final panel, where Mark looks at a sleeping Eve with an anxious expression, is just perfect. As usual I can’t wait for the next issue.
BONE #36 (Cartoon Books, 1999) – A+. I already read this as part of the one-volume edition, but I bought it again just for the sake of completism, and because it was in the one-dollar-per-pound box. (Which was exciting, but not as much so as it sounds; most of the comics in there were pretty awful.) I’m not going to review the actual story because I’ve read it and I remember it fairly well, but it was nice to be reminded of how much Jeff Smith rocks. There were also a couple bonuses in the original issue that weren’t in the collected edition, including a letter column with a letter from a young Fábio Moon, and a three-page THB preview story by Paul Pope, who appeared on a panel with Jeff in Columbus last month.
CHEW #38 (Image, 2013) – A-. I didn’t enjoy this issue as much as previous issues, mostly because it focused on the villain, Mason Savoy, rather than Tony or Amelia or Olive. This issue had the same level of hilarious bizarreness that I’ve come to expect from this series, though, and the candy version of the Absorbing Man was awesome. I have no idea what’s happening on the last page; that thing that Olive cooks for Tony looks very familiar, but how is it going to help him talk with Toni?
THE UNWRITTEN #15 (DC, 2010) – A-. I bought this at the convention on December 8th, but I was motivated to read it today because I just started reading the last Harry Potter book. Having subsequently read issue 16, I feel like this issue is primarily a setup for what comes next, but I still find this “literary GPS” idea fascinating. I may have mentioned before that it reminds me a lot of the chapter of From Hell with the tour of London. I notice an uncanny similarity between Merlin, as depicted in this issue, and Alan Moore.
THE UNWRITTEN #16 (DC, 2010) – A+. This is possibly the most important issue of the series, because, in the first place, it explains the basic premise – which, as I understand it, stories become real if people believe in them enough. And apparently Wilson created Tommy Taylor because he felt that people’s capacity for believing in stories was being eroded, or something like that. In the second place, Wilson identifies Tommy’s mother – Sue Morganstern, who I don’t remember, but I guess she’s named after S. Morgenstern from the Princess Bride. And then Wilson gets decapitated by that one guy with the sideburns. In short, this issue advances the plot of the series significantly. I wish I could read the current issues of this series, but that would require me to break my DC boycott, and besides, The Unwritten has had a crossover with Fables, which I wouldn’t be reading even if I wasn’t boycotting DC. I’ll stick to buying the back issues from the dollar boxes.
THE UNWRITTEN #17 (DC, 2010) – A-. As far as I know, this is only the second comic book ever published (besides Meanwhile) that has a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) format; the other one was The Ren & Stimpy Show Special #3. I haven’t read that comic, but when I interviewed Jason Shiga earlier this year, he said it was disappointing because it didn’t exploit the potential of comics. It worked just like a standard CYOA book, in that you read it one page at a time, and then you were told which page(s) you could read next. The Unwritten #17 works the same way: each physical page is divided into two halves, and at the end of each half-page, the reader is directed to another page, or given a choice between two pages. Again, the problem with this is it’s just like reading a prose CYOA book. In comparison, in Meanwhile, each panel has a trail leading out of it to the next panel, and when the reader has to make a choice, there are multiple trails. This is a version of the CYOA format that can only work in comics, and it makes Meanwhile a far more innovative work. On top of that, The Unwritten #17 does not incorporate the CYOA mechanism into the narrative. What I mean is, in Meanwhile, the fact that the story takes different branching paths is actually explained in terms of the narrative, which is about parallel universes and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics. In The Unwritten #17, there is no narrative reason why this issue has to be a CYOA story; it just seems like this format was introduced as a gimmick.
Now having said that, this issue still tells a very effective story, and it does some interesting things with the CYOA format. The reader never really gets to make any significant choices; there is only one bad ending, which is easy to avoid, and most of the other choices do not change the basic outline of Lizzie Hexam’s life story. For example, whatever happens, Lizzie ends up with Wilson Taylor. The interesting part is that although you always end up in the same place, you can choose either of two different paths to get there, and the differences are significant. For example, on page 11, Lizzie becomes catatonic because she sees something traumatic, but there are two possible explanations for what she saw, depending on the previous choice the reader made: either she looked through Wilson’s papers and discovered her own forgotten history of child abuse, or she witnessed Wilson beating someone to death. It’s an interesting way of suggesting the ambiguity of Lizzie’s past: the basic outline of her personal history is clear, but some significant details are unknowable. The disappointing part, though, is that about halfway through the story, the choices stop, and there’s only one path to follow. I don’t think there’s any artistic reason for this; I feel like Carey and Gross just ran out of room to add any additional branching paths.
Overall, this issue is interesting in terms of my current research on Meanwhile and CYOA comics, but I don’t think it’s going to merit more than a footnote in my book. There was some fascinating potential here which was not fully realized.