Lots and lots of reviews

2-23-13

AVENGERS #283 (Marvel, 1987) – B-. This was one of the last Stern-Buscema-Palmer issues I hadn’t read, but unfortunately it wasn’t all that good. The issue takes place entirely in Olympus and focuses on the Avengers’ efforts to heal Hercules, who is still in a coma after his brutal beating by Mr. Hyde. Besides Hercules himself, though, none of the Marvel versions of the Greek gods are particularly interesting, especially not compared to their DC counterparts. Fred Van Lente and Greg Pak actually did manage to infuse some life into these characters, but not until much later. As a result, this story is not particularly appealing, though the artwork and dialogue are up to this creative team’s usual standards.

CAPTAIN AMERICA #45 and #46 (Marvel, 2009) – B/B-. These were all right, but I’m still not a huge fan of Brubaker’s Cap. There is nothing particularly memorable about the first issue, besides a rather surprising suggestion of sexual chemistry between Bucky and Natasha. In the second issue, Brubaker writes Namor quite effectively.

As a very general statement which applies specifically to these two issues of Cap, I find that semi-recent back issues of superhero comics can be tough to read because A) they take themselves too seriously and B) most of the continuity from even five years ago is no longer current, so it’s hard to care about the stories. At this point I decided I’d had enough of new comics, so I decided to read some old ones instead, and I discovered that I was enjoying myself a lot more.

SUPERBOY AND THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES #234 (DC, 1977) – C+/B-. This was fun, but only for reasons of nostalgia, because Gerry Conway was a pretty poor Legion writer. He treated most of the characters like interchangeable parts; among his Legionnaires the only two who had distinctive personalities were Timber Wolf and Wildfire, who, not coincidentally, are the two Legionnaires who are most similar to Marvel characters. I think that Wildfire in particular, with his hotheadedness and his constant whining, is a favorite among casual Legion fans, despite or because of the fact that his negative personality is at odds with the generally optimistic tone of the franchise. Some people are just more comfortable with a hero who’s an annoying whiny jerk than with heroes who are genuinely heroic. Anyway, Wildfire is the only character in this issue who truly stands out. If Conway’s characterization was a big step back from that of Shooter or the early Levitz, then his plotting was also a step down from those writers or even Cary Bates. This issue’s plot, which involves Bounty and a composite Legionnaire character, is just not all that memorable.

AQUAMAN #50 (DC, 1970) – A+. The first story in this issue has some of the best Jim Aparo artwork I’ve ever seen. I associate Aparo with dynamic page layouts and action sequences, but not so much with visual fireworks or bizarre draftsmanship. This story, however, takes place in an alternative dimension, and Aparo depicts this place in a surrealistic, experimental style that reminds me of Ditko crossed with Breccia. There’s Kirby crackle everywhere and the backgrounds are drawn in a style resembling abstract art. Even for DC in 1970 this was some incredibly radical art. The story, by Steve Skeates, is not up to the level of the artwork, but it hardly needs to be. Aparo’s artwork here is so good that it actually overshadows the Deadman backup story by Neal Adams, even though that story is also very impressively drawn (in particular, Adams makes Ocean Master’s mask look awesome). Unfortunately, even back in 1970, Neal was a completely incoherent writer.

THE ETERNALS #13 (Marvel, 1977) – A-/B+. Kirby’s artwork in this issue is absolutely gorgeous, especially the two-page splash depicting the Deviants’ giant bomb. In terms of the artwork, at least, this series is worthy of the Kirby comics that it preceded it, and it shows that the King of Comics’s visual imagination was as powerful as ever at this late point in his career. The writing, though, is a problem. On the letters page, Mark Alan Joplin complains that the characters in this series have no motivation and no dramatic conflicts with each other, and he’s basically right. Neither Makkari nor Sersi nor Ikaris nor any of the other Eternals is a truly deep or memorable character, and out of all the characters Kirby created in this series, the only ones who have been productively used by other writers are the Celestials themselves, who barely count as characters since they never talk. In his Fourth World titles, Kirby did manage to create a setting and a cast of characters who were worthy of his artwork, but in Eternals, he failed to do so a second time.

POWER MAN #33 (Marvel, 1976) – C-. I regularly show people pages by Don McGregor as examples of ineffective comics writing. A typical Don McGregor page has so many word balloons and caption boxes, each of them containing so many words, that the rhythm of the artwork is completely ruined. On top of that, he wrote purple prose like it was going out of style. A random example from this issue: “ The shadows die in a sudden burst of light, vivd and stark, like lightning bolts erupting upward from the cement. A second shaft seeks Cage’s flesh and rushes over him. The masonry shatters beneath his hands as if one can’t even depend on stone to remain constant.” What’s worse is that this caption, like most of the others in this issue, is unnecessary to understand the story; you can see that the masonry is cracking and there’s an arrow flying over Cage’s head. In fact – and this is a testament both to the clarity of Frank Robbins’s graphic storytelling and the excessiveness of McGregor’s prose – this issue would be much better if every single caption box was removed. Really the plot and the artwork of this issue are not all that bad; it’s just that McGregor ruined this story by smothering it in purple prose.

KING CONAN #2 (Marvel, 1980) – A-. This is an exciting story by my favorite Conan creative team – Thomas, Buscema and Chan – in which Conan confronts his greatest enemy, Thoth-Amon. The plot of this issue is rather convoluted and draws heavily on past continuity, but not to the point where it’s difficult to understand. I think my favorite thing about these King Conan stories is Prince Conn and his interactions with his father; Conn is just so cute, and his presence brings out Conan’s rarely seen tender side.

SUPER-VILLAIN TEAM-UP #7 (Marvel, 1976) – B+/A-. This issue is notorious for a scene in which Doom attempts to exercise his droit de seigneur with a peasant girl and is thwarted by the Shroud. This sort of scene, where rape is used to establish a character’s credentials as a villain, is usually very offensive. In this issue, though, the droit de seigneur scene is written and drawn in kind of a goofy style, to the point where it’s funny rather than frightening, and it makes the reader laugh at Doom rather than fear him. And the reader knows that Gretchen is not in serious danger of being raped because this is a Code-approved comic from the ‘70s. So this scene is in questionable taste, but I have read similar scenes that were much worse. If anything about this scene is offensive, it’s the fact that Gretchen is portrayed as completely helpless and doesn’t even get to say anything. The other memorable thing in this issue is the Shroud’s origin, which is clearly a hybrid of the origins of Batman and the Shadow.

YANG #10 (Modern Comics, 1977; originally Charlton, 1975) – B-. This series is strictly worse than Master of Kung Fu, in the Magic: The Gathering sense. In Magic, a card is strictly better than another card if it does everything the other card does, but also has additional abilities and/or costs less mana; for example, Lightning Bolt is strictly better than Shock because it does one more damage for the same amount of mana. Similarly, Master of Kung Fu has the exact same story as Yang, but with much better writing and artwork. Warren Sattler’s artwork on Yang is reasonably good, but quite pedestrian compared to that of Paul Gulacy or Gene Day, and Joe Gill’s writing is boring, which is no wonder given the rate at which he was churning these things out. The main thing I liked about this issue is the romance between Yang and the Dragon Lady-esque villain Yin Li, although this is hardly an original plot device.

MASTER OF KUNG FU #105 (Marvel, 1981) – A-. Speaking of which… Gene Day is one of the most underrated artists in Marvel’s history. His artwork is rich in detail and his page layouts are spectacular. He took advantage of the entire height and width of the page in a way that very few of his contemporaries did. Many of the pages in this issue remind me of Bryan Hitch’s widescreen style, in a good way. The plot of this issue revolves around Razor-Fist, one of Doug Moench’s silliest creations, but Doug somehow manages to inject a lot of excitement into a plot that could easily have been overcomplicated, humorless and stupid.

DEFENDERS #5 (Marvel, 1972) – A. Valkyrie is a rather dated character now, a stereotyped portrayal of a man-hating militant feminist, but in 1972 she must have been a far more original character. And in this issue Englehart writes her not as a walking stereotype but as a person with genuine depths. The issue revolves around her struggle both to find friends and to understand what she is. The plot, in which the Defenders battle a giant statue thing called Yandroth, is just an excuse for this. It would have been nice, though, if Englehart had written Val as a more self-sufficient person – at one point she says that the Defenders can’t reject her because then she’d have absolutely no one to turn to.

FANTASTIC FOUR #12 (Marvel, 2013) – B-. This is still an okay series but not a great one. The main thing I liked about this issue was the ending, where the FF are rescued from the past by the Preservation Front’s children. These characters look a lot like Alan Davis creations, especially the girl with the pink mohawk – I think I’ve seen this character somewhere before but I can’t recall where.

FLASH GORDON #33 (Gold Key/Whitman, 1980) – A+. This is the third part of Al Williamson’s adaptation of the Flash Gordon film, and it is every bit as gorgeous as the previous two. The story reads like a plot summary, which it basically is. But the artwork reveals absolute mastery of anatomy, facial expressions and backgrounds. Al’s landscapes and cityscapes are breathtaking, and his combat scenes include an absurd number of characters, all in dramatic poses. This story should be reprinted in a giant IDW hardcover edition so that the artwork can be enjoyed at an appropriate size.

WOMANTHOLOGY: SPACE #2 (IDW, 2012) – B+/A-. Easily the best story in this issue is the last one, which explains, in a surprisingly plausible way, why cats are an absolute necessity for space travel. (They can control their own density, they exist in a state of quantum indeterminacy between being inside and outside, etc.) The artist, Maarta Laiho, shows a lot of visual creativity in her depiction of various aliens and their cats. The first story, about Valentina Tereshkova, is rather poignant, although I couldn’t help comparing it unfavorably to Nick Abadzis’s Laika. I have no comment on the second story.

MARVEL ADVENTURES: IRON MAN #3 (Marvel, 2007) – B+/A-. I bought some issues of this series at a Gainesville book sale several years ago, but never read them due to lack of interest. This issue, though, was surprisingly good. Fred Van Lente introduces the villain of this issue, Plant-Man, in a way that creates a pleasant shock of recognition for existing readers, but no prior acquaintance with this character is necessary to understand the story. Plant-Man is a pretty cool villain, much like Jason Woodrue but far less creepy. The story is cleverly plotted: at the beginning of the issue there’s a passing reference to defective batteries that explode when overheated, and at the end of the issue Tony and Pepper find themselves in the plant that was making those batteries, and guess what happens. So this was pretty fun.

MARVEL ADVENTURES: IRON MAN #4 (Marvel, 2007) – A-. Another fun story in which Justin Hammer and Spymaster try to publicly discredit Stark Industries, but their plan fails because Hammer’s harassed and abused secretary turns out to be friends with Pepper Potts, and she tells Pepper all about Hammer’s plot. The secretary is named Mavis Lash, which is an obvious homage to Wolff & Byrd. There is some minor sexism in the way Pepper and Mavis Lash are portrayed in this issue, but at least Pepper seems to be a competent and intelligent character, and she ultimately saves the day. This issue is clearly inspired by the classic Justin Hammer storyline in the #120s of Iron Man, but Van Lente comes up with an original take on the basic plot of Hammer taking control of Tony’s armor.

After reading this issue, I also read issue 6 of the same series, but I was about halfway through it when I realized it was missing some story pages. So I cannot include that issue on my list of comics I’ve read.

THE ALL-NEW BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #3 (DC, 2011) – B-. This was cute but insubstantial. A team-up between the Mirror Master and the Mad Hatter is a surprisingly good idea (since they both have a “through the looking glass” gimmick), and it’s odd that no one’s thought of it before. However, the execution could have been better. In particular, the ending, where Batman and the Flash escape the looking glass by thinking backwards, just doesn’t make sense, though I guess that’s appropriate since neither does Alice in Wonderland. I feel like the animated version of Young Justice has a narrative depth that’s missing from this series.

SAGA #18 (Image, 2013) – A+. As usual this was the first comic I read on Wednesday. This issue provides a bittersweet but satisfying conclusion to the first two years of the series. The climactic moment of this issue, where Marco shoves Alana off the tower, didn’t entirely convince me. When he says “my wife can do anything,” it seems somehow a little patronizing. But the last page, where we see a now toddler-aged Hazel walking, becomes one of the most heartwarming moments in recent comics history when you think of everything Marco, Alana and Hazel have endured just to get to this point.

LOKI, AGENT OF ASGARD #1 (Marvel, 2014) – B+. I have to read this because I spent an entire class on Loki last week. This comic is part of Marvel’s current aggressive effort to promote Loki, and includes some extremely blatant fanservice, such as the two panels of Loki in the shower. This would be extremely annoying if the character involved were female, but I have much less of a problem with fanservice directed at female or gay readers. Loki has been an excellent tool for attracting readers from underserved demographics, and it’s encouraging that Marvel is continuing to use him in the role. Moving on to the actual merits of the comic, Al Ewing shows a solid grasp of the character and his take on Loki is a logical extension of Kieron Gillen’s. The story seemed kind of basic, though, compared to Gillen’s extremely deep, complex plots. I figured out pretty early that Thor was acting out of character, though I attributed this to poor writing rather than brainwashing. I hope that Ewing can come up with a plot that’s worthy of his protagonist.

MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC #16 (IDW, 2014) – B+/A-. I’m planning to write an essay on transmedia strategies in the MLP comics, and I’m going to have to discuss or at least mention this issue, because it does some fascinating stuff with fourth-wall breaking and homages to other media. The film noir sequence alone is worth the price of the issue, and the Star Trek homage was also pretty cool. On the other hand, I’m not sure I ever understood the plot, and it’s resolved in an overly saccharine way.

INVINCIBLE #108 (Image, 2014) – B-. I can’t really evaluate this issue without seeing where this story is going. I’m going to say B- because this story made me deeply frustrated with the main character, apparently on purpose, and I’m not sure why Kirkman is writing Mark this way. As I mentioned in my review of the previous issue, it has been really obvious for quite a while that Robot is evil and that he’s trying to manipulate Mark in some way. In this issue, Robot’s plans come to fruition as he tricks Mark into stranding himself in an alternate universe. The infuriating part is that Eve realizes Mark is endangering himself unnecessarily and begs him not to go with Robot, and not only does Mark ignore her perfectly reasonable advice, he even insinuates that she’s acting irrationally because of pregnancy hormones. I mean, I suppose it’s natural for people in a relationship to fight, but that is just inexcusable. Mark has grown so much as a character since this series began, and now he’s starting to regress. It’s like impending fatherhood has turned him into a petulant child again, making him obsess over the nonexistent danger of Angstrom Levy while blinding him to much more serious threats. Maybe by the end of this current story Mark will have learned better, but I’m afraid he’s going to either die or turn into a villain. With Kirkman, neither outcome is outside the realm of possibility.

An intriguing thing about this issue is how Kirkman presents everything, including Mark and Eve’s fight as well as Robot’s chilling series of murders, without any authorial commentary. He seems to want us to form our own opinions about each situation in the story, and rather than coming down on the side of any particular character, he wants us to decide who to side with. This appearance of impartiality is a key element of his writing style both here and in Walking Dead.

ASTRO CITY #9 (DC, 2014) – A+. Depending on how Kurt resolves this story next issue, it could be the best Astro City story ever. I have never seen such a sustained and nuanced examination of feminism in any mainstream comic. It’s a little annoying that this story is narrated by Samaritan and not Vic herself. Samaritan’s narration seems to grasp the key point, though: the essence of Vic’s crisis is that she needs to solve her problems herself, rather than relying on men to do it for her, because what is at stake is not just her own future but the very notion that women can take care of themselves. Winged Victory’s story seems like a metaphor of many struggles that real women are facing today, including in the comics industry (the Scott Lobdell/MariNaomi incident is the first thing that comes to mind). The irony, though, is that it seems like Joey is going to make the crucial discovery that will save Vic, and I wonder how Kurt will handle this and how it will play into the overall themes of the story. I can’t wait for next issue. I should also note that the scene with the old Japanese woman is just heartbreaking and uplifting all at once, and this story deserves an Eisner nomination for that scene alone.

SAVAGE DRAGON #193 (Image, 2014) – C-. This issue claims to be the start of a bold new direction, but there’s very little here of any interest. The whole issue is just some typical fight scenes (though I admit Tantrum is an intriguingly bizarre villain) and awkward interactions between Malcolm and his classmates. One scene in particular, where Malcolm’s friend Lamarr says some shockingly racist things about Asian people, is rather disturbing, because Malcolm just says “Whoa, dude, not cool” and that’s the end of the conversation. It’s disappointing that Malcolm doesn’t condemn Lamarr in stronger terms. Reading over my past reviews of Savage Dragon, I get the feeling that this series has been declining in quality for a while, and I am actually starting to consider dropping it.

BATMAN: LI’L GOTHAM #11 (DC, 2014) – A-. To paraphrase something someone said to me the other day, there are currently two DCs, DC New York and DC Burbank. When we complain about DC’s creative stagnation or ask whether DC has done something stupid lately, we are talking about DC New York. DC Burbank, on the other hand, is producing some genuinely high-quality and original work, of which this series and Batman ’66 are the primary examples. This issue opens with an utterly adorable story in which Bruce and Damian visit Ra’s and Talia. This story is more a series of jokes than a plot, but that’s forgivable when the jokes are this good. Particular highlights include Bruce making fun of Damian’s lack of chest hair and Talia serving python dumplings (ssscrumptious). The serious side here is that all of this suggests a much more positive relationship between Bruce, Damian and their family than we usually see in the comics. There are even subtle hints that Bruce and Talia still love each other despite being separated – they appear to be sleeping in the same room. I didn’t enjoy the second story nearly as much, but it did have some cute homages to other versions of Batman.

SHE-HULK #1 (Marvel, 2014) – A. This issue covers much the same territory as Dan Slott’s She-Hulk series, in that it focuses equally on Jen’s roles as lawyer and as superhero. The difference is that Charles Soule’s She-Hulk has a far more serious tone and that Soule seems to know a lot more about the law. The issue opens with a scene in which Jen is denied a bonus, and then fired, because her law firm hasn’t been getting business from her superhero friends. This seems shockingly plausible, especially when the senior partners basically tell Jen that they don’t see her as a real lawyer and that they expected her to figure that out herself. This sense of plausibility continues into the rest of the story, where Tony Stark’s lawyers (without his knowledge) try to prevent Jonas Harrow’s widow from obtaining justice. Overall Charles Soule has a novel and original take on this character, and I look forward to reading more of this series. I also greatly enjoyed the artwork by Javier Pulido. His artwork reminds me of that of Marvel’s leading current artists, David Aja and Chris Samnee, in that it almost has a Clear Line sensibility. Everything is made up of flat fields of color and the use of computerized shading is kept to a minimum. He also creates a unique and memorable page layout for the two-page spread where Jen meets Legal for the first time.

MANHUNTER #37 (DC, 2009) – B-. I like the idea of this Manhunter series, but this issue was hard to understand without having read the rest of the series recently. I couldn’t remember who any of the characters were besides Kate and Riley. I do get the sense that this story would be pretty enjoyable if I understood it better, and this must be one of the rare DC comics featuring a superhero who’s a middle-aged woman with a teenage son.

INCREDIBLE HULK ANNUAL #18 (Marvel, 1992) – C+/B-. These early ‘90s Marvel annuals must have been very annoying for the writers, who were expected to produce a 30- to 40-page story that tied in with two or three other series, without having any important links to the regular continuity of the series. The annual format can be spectacular when it allows for the creation of work that exceeds the scope of a regular issue (e.g. Superman Annual #11, or the two Spider-Man annuals with Frank Miller artwork), but the annual that’s part of a crossover is probably unworkable. This sort of annual is essentially a 64-page fill-in issue. As a case in point, this Hulk annual is just average. It has a lot of PAD’s trademark corny humor, and it was nice seeing Rick and Marlo again after not having read a new PAD Hulk story in many years. But too much of the issue is wasted on setting up a boring plot that can’t be resolved in a satisfying way, because it has to continue into three other annuals. This annual also includes several filler stories that range from bad to horrible.

MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDS FOREVER #1 (IDW, 2014) – B+/A-. I was initially very excited about this issue because of the combination of Carla Speed McNeil and My Little Pony. Then after buying the issue, I flipped through it and it seemed too garish for my tastes. After actually reading it, I find I was right that this story is told in a very campy, over-the-top style, and it’s over way too fast. However, there is a lot of funny stuff here, and Carla has an effective grasp on the visual appearance and facial expressions of the characters. Along with Andy Price, she is clearly the most gifted artist to have drawn this series (apologies to Thom Zahler). Still, I think this issue would have been more fun if the story had been closer to what’s depicted on the cover.

FANTASTIC FOUR #588 (Marvel, 2011) – A/A+. I previously said that I’d now read every issue of Hickman’s FF, but I forgot about this one. The first half of this issue is a silent sequence showing various characters’ reactions to Johnny’s death in the previous issue. Nick Dragotta’s artwork here is very powerful, but the impact of the scene is decreased by the reader’s knowledge that Johnny would come back to life a year later. The truly memorable part of this issue is the second half, where Spider-Man talks to Franklin about the deaths of their respective uncles. Hickman’s version of Franklin was a highly believable character (unlike Valeria, who was not supposed to be) and his interaction with Spider-Man seems very plausible and age-appropriate. Also this story has Franklin eating a hot dog while suspended from a web harness, which is insanely cute.

ROCKET GIRL #3 (Image, 2014) – A-. This series is starting to grow on me. Easily the highlight of the issue is that we finally learn the reason for the Teen Police Force: “Never trust anyone over 30.” Which, really, is the same basic idea behind the Legion of Super-Heroes: that teens are more trustworthy and less corruptible than adults. The actual plot of the issue is less interesting than the characters, though we are starting to see disturbing hints that Quintum Corporation rules the entire world of the future.

MARVEL ADVENTURES: SPIDER-MAN #22 (Marvel, 2007) – C+/B-. I may have read this story while too tired to appreciate it, but I thought it was a rather formulaic story, lacking the innovative twists on classic Marvel continuity that were the best thing about the Marvel Adventures line. This story is about a rivalry between the Green Goblin and the Hobgoblin, and it reminded me a lot of Amazing Spider-Man #63, which also involves a fight between new and old versions of the same villain. The one thing I did like about this issue was J. Jonah Jameson’s humorously evil behavior – at one point he thinks Peter is dead and is heartbroken, but only because he forgot to have Peter sign a waiver of liability.

MARVEL CHILLERS #6 (Marvel, 1976) – B. The story here is pointless, and unfortunately guest-stars Red Wolf, a walking stereotype if I ever saw one. The appeal of the issue is the artwork by John Byrne. This was one of his earlier stories for Marvel and it shows the primary virtues of his artwork, such as big dramatic action sequences (including one impressive two-page splash) and realistic-looking machinery. However, the inking by Frank Springer is not up to the level of the pencils.

CAPTAIN AMERICA #207 (Marvel, 1977) – C+. I tried to like this but I couldn’t. Kirby’s Cap was unpopular at the time because of its lack of narrative sophistication compared to Englehart’s Cap. This was apparently such a common opinion that this issue’s letter column even includes one letter which begins “I’ve had it with this drivel demeaning the King’s writing abilities!” Now I think that Kirby was a brilliant writer, though his prose style is certainly an acquired taste. The problem is that this Cap series was not the proper outlet for his talents. The plot of this issue is that Cap gets kidnapped by an evil South American prison warden, the Swine. This is just not all that exciting, and the Swine is a cartoonishly evil villain. This issue does have some impressive action sequences, but I feel that the subject matter was not worthy of Kirby’s talents.

USAGI YOJIMBO #15 (Fantagraphics, 1989) – A+. More of “The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy.” I don’t have much to add to my review of #13, except to say that this is a fantastically exciting story. The sequence of Usagi’s escape from Lord Tamakuro’s castle is just thrilling. There’s one particularly cute moment early in the issue where Usagi is having a practice fight, and we cut away from the fight to Lord Tamakuro telling Captain Torame that Usagi’s opponent has never been beaten. Captain Torame replies “The match is over, sir,” and then we cut back to Usagi’s opponent being carried off the field. It’s an effective demonstration of Usagi’s skill. Another random note is that Ino, the blind swordspig/masseur, is a major character in this issue. Stan wrote him out of the series permanently at the end of the Fantagraphics run, perhaps wanting to give him a happy ending. One character in the issue refers to Ino as s a pig; in more recent times, characters in Usagi rarely if ever acknowledge that they’re all animals.

GREEN LANTERN #58 (DC, 1968) – B+. I have a hypothesis that I might appreciate John Broome’s Silver Age DC comics more if I think of them as Golden Age SF stories with superhero trappings. Broome’s style of writing has more to do with classic SF than with Marvel-esque superhero comics. The main thing I like about his writing, I think, is the narrative depth. Each of his issues of GL typically has at least a couple plots going at once, and he effectively suggests that GL lives in a rich and complex universe. This issue, for example, includes both a main plot involving a flaw in Hal’s ring, and a subplot in which Hal romances Eve Doremus, and these plots end up intersecting at the end. Unfortunately, Hal’s romantic interactions with Eve end up underscoring that he’s kind of an asshole; he seems to have a habit of serially romancing women (he specifically mentions Carol Ferris and Joan Colby, a character who only appeared once) and then dumping them because they prefer Green Lantern to him. Looking at Broome’s take on Hal Jordan, I understand the basis for Ryan Reynolds’s version of the character.

AVENGERS #86 (Marvel, 1971) – A-. This is generally a well-written and enjoyable Avengers story. The plot is kind of silly, revolving around a genius ten-year-old who wants to blow up the world because everyone hates and fears him. But as with most of the best Avengers stories, what makes this issue work are the interactions between the characters, both the Avengers themselves and the Squadron Supreme. My major problem with this issue is the ending, in which Brain-Child is transformed into a boy of normal intelligence and appearance. This is more or less the same ending as in Flowers for Algernon, yet there is no suggestion that Brain-Child might be worse off as a normal kid, and the implication is that the people who hated him for his massive intellect and his grotesque appeareance were right to do so.

A lesson about teaching from Magic: The Gathering

In an article on Magic: The Gathering strategy, Zvi Mowshowitz writes that

players, especially great players like Todd Anderson, hate to go down lines that leave them no control and no choices to make. Going all in on Pack Rat takes away a great player’s chance to outthink the opponent and leverage superior skill[,] instead putting the game into the hands of the opponent. It also isn’t as much fun.

Decks that force players down lines like this tend to be underplayed by better players and therefore underplayed at high-level tournaments where players instead seek out decks and cards that give them more play. When players have no choice but to rely on such strategies, top players tend to hate the format. It’s important to remember that your choice of deck and your choice of when to go down this path is the place you are leveraging your skill. A key part of a great player’s toolbox is not to be overly attached to being great and instead to focus on what gives you the best chance of winning.

Magic: The Gathering is a collectible card game where you build your own deck, choosing which cards to play and how many of each. What Zvi is saying here is that good players prefer to play decks that give them lots of decisions to make, because this allows them to defeat the opponent by taking advantage of their superior play skill. Good players therefore dislike playing something like the Pack Rat deck, because it only has a single optimal line of play and it doesn’t allow them to exploit their superior decision-making abilities. But Zvi goes on to say that when you play the Pack Rat deck, you are still taking advantage of your superior play skill; it’s just that you’re doing so at the point where you select which deck to play, rather than at the point where you choose to play the deck.

I was thinking about this article this morning because of what happened in my 9 am class. None of the students was talking and I didn’t have anything in particular to lecture about. There was no student presentation today, so I had to fill the entire 50 minutes. Out of desperation, I used one of the strategies outlined in Natalie Houston’s Chronicle article I announced that I was going to sit in the back of the room and let the students lead the discussion. And this had an immediate positive effect. The students started talking and making fascinating points. (For example, they spontaneously noticed the fact that the society in My Little Pony has rather disturbing class divisions. Yes, I am teaching My Little Pony this week, but that’s not the point.) It was like once I was no longer a commanding presence at the front of the room, they felt free to talk on their own.

This was tough for me, though, because I’m used to standing at the front of the class and leading the discussion. To return to Zvi’s quotation, I think I prefer to “leverage” my speaking ability and my superior knowledge of the subject matter by standing at the front of the classroom and asking leading questions. When I let the students talk among themselves, it’s like I’m giving up my ability to take advantage of my expertise in this way — just as when a Magic player goes with the Pack Rat deck, s/he is no longer able to leverage his/her superior play skill. I almost feel as though if I’m not leading the discussion, I’m not really teaching. But just as with the Pack Rat example, when I let my students talk amongst themselves rather than directing the discussion, I’m still taking advantage of my ability to teach. It’s just that I’m doing so not by leading the discussion, but by deciding when to lead the discussion and when not to.

13 pages of reviews

2-8-13

ACTION COMICS #837 (DC, 2006) – A. Kurt Busiek may be the best Superman writer since Elliot S! Maggin, if Alan Moore doesn’t count. In this issue (which of course was co-written by Geoff Johns, but I prefer to credit Kurt with all the good parts), Kurt shows such a deep understanding of Clark, Lois and even Luthor. It’s deeply touching to watch a powerless Clark having to struggle with unaccustomed vulnerability. There’s one page that stuck with me, where Clark takes off his glasses and looks at Lois, and in the next panel her image is blurred. I also vastly prefer the classic mad genius Luthor to the post-Crisis corrupt businessman Luthor, and Kurt’s version of the character is closer to the former than the latter. Overall this was a very strong Superman story.

WONDER WOMAN #51 (DC, 1991) – A-. Maybe the overwhelming theme of this issue is tastefulness. The issue opens with three pages in which Diana, her mother and some other Amazons are naked, having just gotten up after going to bed nude. However, Jill Thompson succeeds in depicting this in a tasteful, nonsexualized way. It almost seems like an example of the Amazons’ naïveté about Patriarch’s World, which is also indicated by the funniest moment of the issue: Hippolyta is awakened by the phone, and thinks it’s “a cry in the night, like some poor tortured soul.” Most of the rest of the issue is taken up by a fight between Hermes and Mercury, which I assume is a lead-in to the War of the Gods crossover. However, this fight starts with a scene where Mercury, posing as Hermes, tries to rape Diana, and she flings him away from her violently, then immediately seems to regret having hit him so hard. Again, it makes perfect sense that Diana’s reactions here are rather conflicted; Mercury is a horrible monster (so is Hermes, for that matter), and yet Diana has worshipped him for her whole life. So in general this issue offers a tasteful and apparently realistic depiction of Diana and other female characters, something rather rare in the current DCU.

USAGI YOJIMBO #12 (Fantagraphics, 1988) – A-. I’m having a tough time finding any back issues of Usagi I don’t already have, so it was a treat to find four issues of the Fantagraphics series at a local convention last weekend. Reading old Usagi coimcs can be a bit offputting, kind of like watching the first season of the Simpsons, because the characters were drawn in a rather crude style. But even back then Stan’s graphic storytelling was as brilliant as it is today. If you replaced all the characters with their modern versions, this issue would be indistinguishable from a recent Usagi comic. Also, even back then Stan was incredibly good at telling a complete, satisfying story in one issue. This story, about the theft of a sword from Lord Noriyuki, is rather lighthearted, and is mostly a prelude to the Dragon Bellow Conspiracy that starts next issue, but Stan resolves it in a satisfying way while also suggesting intriguing possibilities for future stories. One nice touch is that Tomoe and Usagi both appear in this issue but only meet for one page, which leaves the reader hoping for them to meet again. Back in 1988, every issue of Usagi included a short funny animal backup story by other creators; I’m glad Stan stopped doing that, because the backup story in this issue is awful.

STARMAN #73 (DC, 2001) – A-. This is the epilogue to “Grand Guignol,” depicting Ted’s funeral, and it’s pretty depressing. Half the issue consists of eulogies for Ted, and at the end of the issue, Jack doesn’t even get to see Sadie, who has left him a Dear John letter. Luckily I know there’s going to be a happy ending in issue 80, but at this point it’s still seven issues away. At least it’s all quite well written. I don’t particularly like Peter Snejbjerg’s art but he was an adequate replacement for Tony Harris.

GREEN LANTERN #66 (DC, 1969) – A-. I think I’m getting used to John Broome’s writing. This issue obviously has some weaknesses in the characterization department, but it tells an entertaining and well-crafted story, in which Hal saves the people of 5708 AD from a tyrannical computer. This story has some major similarities to Magnus, Robot Fighter, and ends with basically the same moral that characterizes Russ Manning’s Magnus: excessive reliance on technology is dangerous because it makes people soft and lazy. Probably this story was directly inspired by Magnus but I guess it could have been a coincidence.

SHE-HULK #2 (Marvel, 2006) – A-. This issue opens with a scene that’s hilarious but in a rather painful way. We see Jen going to bed with an unidentified man, and then she wakes up and finds Pug making breakfast. And then John walks in and it becomes clear that Jen was sleeping with him, not Pug. Adding insult to injury, Jen then tells Pug that she’s sorry if she and John were being too loud last night! Dan Slott obviously intended the reader to sympathize with Pug rather than John – they represent the stereotypical nerd and jock, respectively – and he repeatedly teased the reader by showing that Jen completely failed to realize Pug was in love with her. The rest of the issue depicts a trial which involves time travel, and the plot quickly becomes hopelessly complicated to the point where it’s impossible to follow, which I assume is part of the joke. This was a pretty fun issue.

AVENGERS #40 (Marvel, 1967) – A+. The best thing about Roy Thomas’s Avengers is the strength of characterization. The characters tended to be somewhat one-dimensional, but even that was an improvement over the Justice League or the pre-Shooter Legion, where the characters were completely indistinguishable. For example, the most exciting thing about this issue is the clash between two superhuman egos, Hercules and Namor. The plot hinges on both Herc’s stupidity and Namor’s pride. Herc accidentally lets slip that the Avengers are looking for the Cosmic Cube, thereby allowing Namor to find it for himself now that he knows there is such a thing. But once Namor finds the Cube, he insists on fighting Hercules on the surface, rather than underwater where he has an unfair advantage, and this gives the Wasp an opportunity to get the Cube away from him. It’s a good example of a character-driven plot. The issue also ends with another cute scene where the Mole Man finds the Cube but throws it away because he doesn’t recognize it; this seems like a preview of the scene at the end of issue 57 where a little boy plays with Ultron’s head.

DOOM PATROL #27 (DC, 1989) – A+. This might be the best ‘80s comic that I still haven’t read the complete run of. As with Surrealism and Dada, Grant’s Doom Patrol stories were weird for the sake of being weird, but they seemed to make sense on an affective, emotional or associative level even when they were completely absurd on a logical level. In this issue Mr. Nobody describes Dada as follows: “Dada is useless, like everything else in life. And Dada has no pretensions, just as life should have none.” That seems like a perfect description of Morrison’s Doom Patrol. It’s also notable because despite the absurdity, this series always seemed to have a lot of emotional sincerity – I got the impression that Grant genuinely cared about his characters and that I should too, and I don’t always feel that way after reading his more recent comics. Partly this is because the POV character in this series is Robotman, who (and this is part of the joke) is the only character who’s truly human. Cliff Steele deeply cares about his teammates despite his total inability to understand them, and this encourages the reader to feel similarly.

FEAR #15 (Marvel, 1973) – A-. Just as tofu has no taste of its own but is used as a delivery vehicle for more flavorful ingredients, Gerber’s Man-Thing had literally no personality, but served as a catalyst for stories involving other, more distinctive characters. This issue focuses on Jennifer Kale, who was a remarkably strong and proactive female character for this era, and reminds me of later Gerber characters like Beverly Switzer or the two women from Omega the Unknown. The letter column even includes a letter praising her as a positive depiction of a practicing Wiccan.’ However, this issue lacks the serious social commentary that’s present in Gerber’s best Man-Thing stories.

FANTASTIC FOUR #10 (Marvel, 2013) – B+. This story is a flashback to 1776, and guest-stars Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (though it misses an opportunity to mention Ben Franklin’s brief affair with Clea). Besides the plot involving the FF’s molecular disintegration, the main focus of the story is on Thomas Jefferson’s conflict over whether to mention slavery in the Declaration of Independence. On first reading this story, I felt it inaccurately depicted Jefferson as an unequivocal opponent of slavery; his actual views on slavery were deeply complex and not necessarily consistent, as indicated by the fact that Wikipedia has a 32-page-long article on Thomas Jefferson and slavery. The main conflict in this issue is that Jefferson wants to reference slavery in the Declaration, but Franklin and Adams are afraid this will cost them the support of the Southern colonies. In real life, it seems like the more significant conflict was in Jefferson’s own mind. But on second thought I think I may not be giving Fraction enough credit for his depiction of Jefferson. He does have Adams point out that Jefferson himself is a slaveholder, and at the end of the issue, when Franklin (Richards) asks Jefferson about slavery, Fraction intentionally declines to tell us what Jefferson said. Maybe this is a sufficient way of acknowledging the complexity of Jefferson’s attitude toward slavery, as well as the complexity of our attitudes about him today. Franklin says that nothing Jefferson said about slavery made any sense, and perhaps this suggests the impossibility of reconciling our views of Jefferson as a liberator and as a slaveholder.

Now that I’ve said all that, this next point seems embarrassingly minor, but I’ll say it anyway: I’m glad that Bagley is finally depicting Franklin as taller than Valeria.

ADVENTURES OF LITTLE ARCHIE #14 (Archie, 1960) – A+. At five dollars, this was by far the most expensive comic I bought at this weekend’s show. And it was worth every penny, because Little Archie comics with Bob Bolling artwork are nearly impossible to find. This issue includes a large number of stories some of which are blatantly stupid, but the highlight is “The Runaway,” a genuine classic. Like much of Bolling’s best work, this story is serious in tone, and is drawn in a style somewhat reminiscent of Barks’s adventure stories. In this story Little Archie gets a spanking for damaging his dad’s car, and decides to run away by rafting down the creek in the backyard. But the creek goes all the way to the ocean and Little Archie ends up lost at sea, clinging to a bell buoy. Obviously he gets rescued but the sense of danger is genuine, and Bolling emphasizes the gravity of this story by drawing everything in a realistic way; for example, the sailors Little Archie encounters have realistically drawn faces, whereas Little Archie’s parents have cartoony faces. It’s almost as though when Little Archie sails out of Riverdale, he leaves the world of childish adventure stories and emerges into the real world. According to the GCD, this story was only ever reprinted once, in a 1974 digest; it’s a shame that this and other Bolling adventure stories are inaccessible. A minor point is that this story claims that Riverdale is located on the Rapinog river; I wonder if this name is canonical, because I can’t find any other references to it on Google. Also, it mentions a city called Walmouth, which sure sounds like a Massachusetts place name.

The other notable story here is “Elvis Sings.” As the GCD writes, “Elvis turns out to be a frog, not the Elvis kids were hoping for,” but the story is genuinely poignant; Archie has to return his pet frog to the swamp, which makes him so sad he goes to bed without eating, but the last panel shows us that Elvis is happier in his natural environment. I notice that both these stories are heavily focused on the wilderness surrounding Little Archie’s house. I would have thought Little Archie was an influence on Calvin & Hobbes, except that Bill Watterson famously dislikes comic books. I think it’s more accurate to say that Little Archie and Calvin & Hobbes are both drawing upon a bygone era when little boys spent much more time outdoors than is common today.

POWER PACK #1 (Marvel, 2005) – B+. This was the first issue of Marvel’s Power Pack revival. When it came out I looked at it briefly and decided not to buy it, partly because the plot seemed kind of dumb. The premise is that Katie has a “how I spent my summer vacation” assignment and writes a story which reveals her and her siblings’ secret identities. This is problematic because Katie is not that stupid. After actually reading the entire issue, though, I find that the plot makes more sense than I gave it credit for. It turns out Katie just wrote the story as a plea for attention, not because she didn’t know better. Overall this was a reasonable start to a series, though I much prefer Alex Zalben’s Power Pack to Marc Sumerak’s version.

MS. MARVEL #8 (Marvel, 1977) – B/B-. About half this issue consists of a boring fight between Carol and Grotesk, a mediocre villain. Besides that, Carol herself is the star of this issue. It’s appropriate that Carol Danvers is Marvel’s best current female protagonist since she was also Marvel’s best female protagonist in the ‘70s, not that she had a lot of competition in either era. One nice touch in that issue is the new character of Tracy Burke, a middle-aged woman who is a distingushed journalist. At the time it was almost unheard of for a comic book to depict an old woman who had a profession other than that of witch, and unfortunately such characters are still rare today.

ADVENTURE COMICS #359 (DC, 1967) – A+. I have this story already since it was reprinted in Superboy #238, along with the following issue. I bought it again for the sake of completism, and I’m glad I did. I was only moderately impressed by “The Outlawed Legionnaires!” on my first reading, but on rereading it I realize that it’s a genuine classic. In this story – which was the basis for a later classic Legion story, “The Universo Project” – half of the Legionnaires are imprisoned on trumped-up charges, and the remaining eight are forced to go into hiding. At the time Shooter was the same age as the characters he was writing, and maybe this is why he is so effective at depicting their bewildered reaction to their situation. The Legionnaires suddenly find themselves betrayed by everyone they know, including their own parents, and they barely know how to react. One especically cute scene occurs when Val Armorr tries to relax by splitting a “slab of super-hard titanium manganite” with his bare hand, but he gets a phone call from Cosmic Boy, which breaks his concentration and causes him to hurt his hand. This scene indicates how Shooter’s Legionnaires are fragile and fallible, unlike typical DC heroes of the time, and this makes them sympathetic in a way that other DC characters were not. There are a few nitpicky problems with this issue – the girl Legionnaires need help from the boys in order to win a fight with some non-powered teenage thugs, and Phantom Girl doesn’t react in any way when Ultra Boy is sentenced to prison. Nonetheless, this is one of Shooter’s best Legion stories.

USAGI YOJIMBO #13 (Fantagraphics, 1988) – A+. This is part one of “The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy,” which I believe was the first major Usagi epic, a predecessor to later stories like “Grasscutter” and “The Treasure of the Mother of Mountains.” Stan is equally good at this format as he is at the short story, and this issue demonstrates his ability to create excitement and to balance multiple plot threads. As with “Grasscutter,” this story consists of several parallel segments involving different characters (Usagi, Tomoe, Gen and Ino), most of whom don’t encounter each other yet, and none of whom knows the entire story. This is an effective plot structure because it builds suspense, whetting the reader’s appetite for the characters’ eventual meeting. The first three pages of this issue are an exercise in dramatic visual storytelling: page one consists of six horizontal panels showing rain, a charging horse’s hooves, Tomoe’s determined face, and a bunch of soldiers with swords, and then this is followed by an explosive two-page splash in which Tomoe charges straight into the enemy.

The plot of “The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy” involves Lord Hikiji’s attempt to overthrow the shogun using imported guns. In Usagi’s earlier days, this sort of epic plot with national implications was much more common than it is now. And there used to be a sense that the entire series was building toward a confrontation between Usagi and Lord Hikiji. But possibly because Stan has been growing older, Usagi has recently tended to focus on smaller-scale stories, the series no longer seems to have any definite endpoint, and Lord Hikiji has receded into the background.

STRANGE TALES #143 (Marvel, 1966) – B+. The pre-Steranko Strange Tales is not one of my favorite ‘60s Marvel comics, largely because neither of the protagonists was (yet) as interesting as other Marvel protagonists of the time. The obvious highlight of this issue is the Ditko artwork on the Dr. Strange story, though it’s mostly an extended fight sequence taking place in the Sanctum Sanctorum, and therefore lacks the graphic fireworks of other Ditko Dr. Strange stories. The Nick Fury story, in which Metallo and the Fixer take over the SHIELD Helicarrier, is reasonably good but doesn’t contain anything highly memorable.

TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED #5 (DC, 2007) – F/A-. This series is a good example of the problem with buying stuff in single issues rather than trades. I’m buying it for the Dr. Thirteen backups, but because I’m reading the individual issues, I’m also forced to endure the Spectre stories that lead off each issue. And these stories are just execrable. They engage in wanton blood, gore and violence for no good reason. If Mike Fleisher’s Spectre was motivated by his hatred for evil, then David Lapham’s Spectre was motivated by his own sadistic desire to hurt people. I suppose this could be justified on grounds of psychological realism, but it’s not fun to read about.

The Dr. Thirteen story, on the other hand, is easily the best piece of metafiction that DC has published recently. In this story, we learn that the DCU is controlled by “the Architects,” who are at war with another universe that “reinvents itself every summer.” And that means we can’t have bizarre and cute characters like Genius Jones or Anthro or Funky Flashman. It’s a pretty damning condemnation of DC’s priorities, and it seems like a miracle that this series was even published. The other highlight of this series is the gorgeous art by Cliff Chiang.

SAVAGE DRAGON #77 (Image, 2000) – B-. This is the second installment of the Savage World story, which was a deliberate throwback to Kirby. Each page is based on a 4×4 or 6×6 grid and the dialogue is written in a characteristically Kirbyesque style. While I have no problems with the Kirbyesque aesthetic, though, I find that Larsen doesn’t add enough of his own style to that of Kirby. This issue just reads like a series of boring fight scenes, and lacks Larsen’s characteristic sense of humor. The only really interesting thing here is the scene that takes place in a tree-city, obviously based on Habitat from Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen.

SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN #11 (Marvel, 2013) – A-. The current Doc Ock/Spider-Man story arc is obviously a temporary gimmick and is not going to last, but at least it’s a reasonable solution to the problem of how to tell an original Spider-Man story after the character’s been around for 50 years. And unlike the Clone Saga or Brand New Day, it doesn’t invalidate years and years of preexisting continuity. This issue is somewhat painful to read in that it depicts Doc Ock completely crushing Peter’s psyche, rubbing Peter’s face in his mistakes and hubris. But this is justifiable because the story adds something genuinely new to the Spider-Man mythos; in addition, both the dialogue and the artwork are quite good.

FANTASTIC FOUR #11 (Marvel, 2013) – B-. I didn’t understand the story in this issue at all, but it had a couple interesting features. First, there is a line about how they had to crush 1,800 of the world’s last remaining peanuts to make Val a sandwich. Second, the villains are a group of steampunks. This is the first Marvel comic I can think of that directly engages with the steampunk genre, even though the steampunks are presented in a rather negative light. I’m not sure that any of the above is worth the price of this comic.

COURTNEY CRUMRIN #7 and 8 (Oni, 2012) – B+. This series is still not up to the level of Hellboy, which it greatly resembles in some ways. But at least it’s fun, and it has a certain bizarre combination of charm and spookiness, reminding me a bit of the Lemony Snicket books. I’m also finally starting to understand the story, which is compelling enough to make me want to read more of this series.

ACTION COMICS #8 (DC, 2012) – A-. This issue works surprisingly well as a reinvention of the Superman concept. In this story Grant comes up with a plausible new take on Brainiac and Metallo, and provides a redefinition of Superman’s purpose, which is very much in the spirit of Siegel and Shuster’s original concept: “I’m here to stand up for people when they can’t stand up for themselves, and I’m here to help out and make things better any way I can.” This is a very different Superman from the one that Kurt Busiek and Elliot S! Maggin wrote about, but it’s a Superman I would be interested in reading about, if it weren’t for my total lack of interest in current DC. If all the New 52 titles had provided such innovative new takes on their protagonists, then the New 52 wouldn’t have been such a dismal failure.

DORK! #7 (Slave Labor, 1999) – B-. In 2000, Tom Spurgeon wrote that “Cluttered Like My Head” was the best comics work Evan Dorkin had ever done. I don’t agree; I thought that this autobiographical story was whiny and pointless. It’s just page after page of Evan complaining about how he suffers from depression and impostor syndrome. Certainly this story seems quite honest, and effectively conveys how awful Evan felt while writing it, but I don’t think that’s sufficient for a satisfying autobiographical comic. In reading an autobiographical comic, I want the author to offer an innovative and unexpected take on life, to help me see the world in a way I hadn’t seen it before, and I don’t think Evan did that successfully. Tom must have seen something in this story that eluded me.

Another point that comes to mind about this story: In this story, Evan displays a deep sense of shame about his passion for comic books. He suggests that being a comic book geek is something to be embarrassed about. This was a very common attitude among alternative cartoonists ten years ago, but I wonder if the stigma associated with comic books is actually starting to decrease. I notice that two different recent books of poetry, Gary Jackson’s Missing You, Metropolis and Raymond McDaniel’s Special Powers and Abilities, have used comic book geekdom as a source of creative inspiration, and for Jackson especially, being a comic book reader seems like almost something to be proud of. Perhaps this is why “Cluttered Like My Head” seems a bit dated now – because it depends heavily on the stigma attached to comic book reading, a stigma which I believe has lost some of its power over the past decade.

BATMAN: THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE #2 (DC, 2010) – A-. I genuinely liked this one. Unlike some other Morrison Batman stories, this issue actually makes perfect sense on its own and tells a complete and satisfying story. That story takes place during the Salem (or rather Gotham) Witch Trials and therefore seems kind of trite, but ends with a surprising shock ending, which reveals that the grand inquisitor in the Gotham witch hunt was the progenitor of the Wayne family. The real highlight of the issue, though, is Frazer Irving’s art. His style is realistic and surrealistic at once; his faces look photorealistic and are presumably based on photo reference, but his coloring creates a mood of deep unease. I first became familiar with his artwork in another Grant Morrison comic, Seven Soldiers: Klarion, and I think he’s improved since then.

R.E.B.E.L.S. #10 (DC, 2010) – C+. This issue is a Blackest Night crossover, and so the plot is rather boring and doesn’t tie up any of the loose ends it introduces. The only thing I liked about this issue, besides the slightly above average artwork, is that it focuses on Stealth, one of the best characters from L.E.G.I.O.N. Unfortunately, at some point prior to this issue Vril Dox killed her, and now she’s back as a Black Lantern. She deserved a better fate than that.

ARCHER & ARMSTRONG #10 (Valiant, 1993) – A-. I would classify this as a minor work by BWS, largely because the draftsmanship is far from the best he’s capable of; I think the somewhat lifeless inking by Bob Wiacek is largely responsible. Also, the story is excessively weighted down by cross-title continuity baggage that no one cares about anymore. Still, this issue is quite fun, especially the scenes on the bus full of time-traveling tourists, and there’s a lot of deadpan British humor. This whole series was basically a prototype for the Freebooters series in BWS: Storyteller, which unfortunately ended too soon because BWS decided to be a prima donna and cancel it.

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES #34 (Mirage, 1990) – C-. I got this comic book for free many years ago, but never read it because it looked horrible. On reading it, I was surprised that it was less bad than it could have been. The story is an unfunny parody of the Punisher or something, and the villain constantly pronounces “turtles” as “toitles,” which gets old really fast. But at least Tom McWeeney’s artwork is okay – kind of reminiscent of Dale Keown or Dave Sim. And there is a pretty cool two-page splash in which the villain has a vision of an entire city street full of turtles. This wasn’t a good comic but it could have been worse.

JLA #37 (DC, 2000) – B-. Not Grant’s best issue of JLA. Too much stuff going on and it’s not clear how it all fits together. The highlight of the issue is the brief scene with Oracle and Prometheus. She keeps her cool when he says some horribly hurtful things to her, and refuses his offer to make her walk again. (Correctly, I think – one compelling aspect of Oracle’s character is that she’s learned to live with her disability, and she certainly shouldn’t agree to collaborate with a notorious supervillain in exchange for having her disability magically cured.) There’s also a cute splash page where Huntress gets flung into outer space, and Superman flies after her and gives her a big smooch, but only to keep her breathing. It’s an example of Grant’s trademark awkward humor. Unfortunately, besides the two scenes just mentioned, there is not much else in this issue.

JLA #39 (DC, 2000) – B+/A-. On initially reading this issue, I liked it a lot more than the previous issue, but now I can’t remember why. Perhaps it’s just because this is part 4 of World War III, while the previous issue was part 2, and so this issue seems like it’s closer to resolving the story. The impression I got from reading this issue, though, was that it had a profoundly Kirbyesque sensibility. This is not just because Orion is a major character in this issue and his dialogue is written in a Kirbyesque style. Grant just really seems to get the Kirbyesque aesthetic – the sense of sheer size and majesty and strangeness and unbounded creativity. At one point I thought of him as the contemporary heir to Kirby, though I don’t know that I still believe that.

MARVEL SPECTACULAR #3 (Marvel, 1973) – A-. Now here’s some actual Kirby. This is reprinted from Thor #128, though it doesn’t say so. Thor has never been my favorite Lee/Kirby comic; it was hampered by bad dialogue, wooden characters, and repetitive plots. The Ego storyline in the #130s might be an exception to that. Hercules guest-stars in this issue, though, and he serves as an effective foil to Thor’s rather flat personality. And the artwork in this story, where Thor visits Pluto’s netherworld, is often spectacular.

SPECIAL MARVEL EDITION #3 (Marvel, 1971) – B. This issue reprints Journey into Mystery #123 to #125. In the first two of these issues, a witch doctor from an unidentified Southeast Asian country is turned into a supervillain called The Demon (not to be confused with all the other characters by that name) and proceeds to conquer all the other neighboring countries, so clearly this is a job for Thor. This sort of Cold War-inspired story was fairly common at Marvel in the ‘60s, and this particular plotline is ineffective because it’s hard to distinguish from other similar stories – I’m thinking specifically of the Executioner story from very early in Thor’s JiM run. And it’s resolved in an anticlimactic way: isuses 123 and 124 are devoted to building up The Demon as an effective threat, but in issue 125, Thor defeats him on page six. The Demon plotline also exhibits Stan’s typical lack of concern for real-world geography. There’s a scene where The Demon besieges a village in Mongolia, where the people wear nothing but loincloths, carry spears and shields, and live in wooden huts. The other big thing in issue 124 is that Thor reveals his secret identity to Jane Foster, but this is not especially exciting because who cares about Jane Foster. Prior to Thor: The Mighty Avenger she was just a horribly boring and lifeless character. There is a pretty cute scene in #124 where Thor comforts a litle girl whose father was wounded in Vietnam. Issue 125 is significantly more effective because it guest-stars Hercules, and the story is driven by his huge ego and hedonistic personality.

THE POWER COMPANY: SKYROCKET #1 (DC, 2002) – A-. This issue is closer in sensibility to Astro City than to some of Kurt’s other Big Two material. It introduces Skyrocket, more or less the protagonist of the Power Company ongoing. Kurt convincingly depicts her as a passionate, idealistic woman whose career is derailed by institutional sexism: she resigns from the military when it becomes clear that she’ll never be allowed to serve in a combat role. The conclusion to the issue suggests that superheroism might offer Skyrocket a way of realizing her potential without being constrained by sexism. The trouble is that I’ve already read the Power Company ongonig series, and I know that Skyrocket’s superhero career ended up being just as unsatisfying as her military career. In Power Company, her idealism and passion are again derailed because she’s part of a team that cares more about making money than saving lives. So this issue ends up being a rather depressing read.

R.E.B.E.L.S. #21 (DC, 2010) – B. I liked this one a lot better than the last issue of R.E.B.E.L.S. I reviewed. This issue is mostly a big fight scene involving Lobo and Altin Admos, the Okaaran Green Lantern. Lobo is not a particularly deep or versatile character, but this issue creates an effective conflict by pairing him with an opponent who’s his opposite in personality. The one problem with this issue is that I was buying this series primarily because of Starfire, and in this issue she only appears in a couple panels.

FADE FROM BLUE #1 (Second 2 Some Studios, 2002) – D+/C-. Unfortunately the name of the publisher accurately describes this comic. The premise here is interesting – the four protagonists are the daughters of the same man and four different wives, all of whom were ignorant of the others. However, the creators, Marat Murphy and Scott Dalrymple, just don’t have the ability to exploit the potential of this premise. The plot structure in this issue is highly confusing; the issue consists of a bunch of disconnected scenes with no clear relationship. There are so many characters in this issue that it’s hard to tell them all apart. An appendix listing their names and relationships would have helped a lot. This series has a good idea behind it, though, and it would be worth reading if the creators returned to it after refining their storytelling skills some more.

ADVENTURE COMICS 80-PAGE GIANT #1 (DC, 1998) – C-. There are seven stories in this issue but none of them are particularly good. I bought this issue because of the Legion story, but that story focuses entirely on Lori Morning, one of the worst characters in the history of the franchise. The other stories range from forgettable to terrible. In particular, the Supergirl story is extremely heavy-handed and unsubtle, and the artwork includes some glaring mistakes, such as one panel where the perspective is completely wrong: the characters in the panel appear to be less than half the height from the floor to the bottom of a window. The best of a bad lot are, first, a rather cute story where Superboy encounters a mermaid (though the writer must have known what he was doing when he named the mermaid Lolina). And second, the Bizarro World story, which features some spectacular Kevin O’Neill artwork full of visual puns. This one story is enough to raise the grade of the issue from D+ to C-.

THOR #192 (Marvel, 1971) – B-. This story illustrates the problems with Stan Lee’s Thor. The story is not original or entertaining – it’s just yet another one of Loki’s plots to usurp the throne of Asgard. And there is no effective characterization to distract the reader from the boring plot. In particular, Sif is depicted in this issue as a helpless damsel in distress. The Sif who appears in this issue is essentially a completely different and much worse character from the modern version who appears in the films and in Kathryn Immonen’s JiM. John Buscema’s artwork here is good but not good enough to save the story. The only cool thing here is the rather surprising ending, which unexpectedly introduces the Silver Surfer. Also, this issue was published during the month where Marvel chose to drop all the punctuation from the ends of sentences This was extremely bizarre and distracting, to the point where it significantly detracts from the impact of the story You can see how weird it looks when I do it

THOR #301 (Marvel, 1980) – F. This is just an average story, possibly below-average because of the excessive continuity baggage. The Celestials story that ended in this issue was part of Mark Gruenwald’s ongoing attempt to create a consistent version of the prehistory of the Marvel universe, and I feel like it’s only interesting to people who share Mark’s obsession with Marvel continuity, although I am such a person. The complexity of the plot is indicated by the fact that this issue begins with two full pages of recap. The primary redeeming feature of this issue is that it also features Thor’s reunion with his mother, Jord/Gaea, which is a genuinely emotional moment.

So why does this issue get an F? Because the bulk of the story depicts Thor visiting other divine pantheons to borrow their power, so that he can resurrect the dead Olympians. And the last pantheon he visits is the Hindu gods. But they refuse his offer, and this leads to a big fight between Thor and Shiva, which Thor wins (although the writers tactfully suggest that Thor only won because he teleported them to Asgard). Shiva is depicted here as an obese, double-chinned, combative buffoon. The problem here is obvious – Shiva is a deity worshipped by over a billion people, and even if this issue had an overwhelmingly non-Hindu readership, I think it behooved Marvel to depict Shiva in a more sensitive way, or ideally to not include him in the Marvel universe at allS. I imagine that any actual Hindu pepole who read this comic would have found it shockingly offensive. I mean, imagine if an Amar Chitra Katha comic depicted Jesus the way this issue depicts Shiva. For more discussion of this issue see http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2012/07/14/the-abandoned-an-forsaked-did-thor-just-beat-up-the-most-powerful-hindu-god/ and http://marvunapp.com/Appendix/shiva1.htm.

HERBIE #1 (Dark Horse, 1992) – F for the first story, A+ for the last two. You can guess why the first story gets an F when I say that it was writen and drawn by John Byrne. In this story, Herbie’s mom gets hired to do TV commercials, which prevents her from doing housework, so obviously this puts Herbie and his dad in danger of starving. So Herbie tries to deliberately sabotage her career so she’ll come home. Obviously this story was trying to make fun of the sexism of Silver Age comics, but it utterlfy fails to do so; it’s so unfunny that it ends up reproducing the sexist attitudes it’s supposed to be parodying. Also, this story demonstrates John’s typical inability to draw more than one female face, as Herbie’s mom looks just like Sue Storm or Heather Hudson.

Luckily this issue also includes reprints of two classic Herbie stories by Richard Hughes and Ogden Whitney. These stories are just fantastic in their sheer absurdity; they combine a deadpan art style with a completely nonsensical narrative, in which Herbie does things like defeating a giant ant by “bonking him with this here lollipop.” I have no idea what Hughes and Whitney were trying to accomplish with this comic, but whatever it was, they achieved it successfully. I need to read more of this series.

HERC #4 and <a name="herc3"#3 (Marvel, 2011) – C. I read these issues out of order, so I enjoyed #3 better than #4 because the story made more sense. However, neither of these issues felt particularly exciting. I think Pak and Van Lente basically ran out of ideas after finishing Chaos War, and the quick cancellation of the Herc series was unsurprising because it lacked the humor, passion and excitement of Incredible Hercules. This issue doesn’t even include any humorous sound effects.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: REBORN #1 (Marvel, 2009) – B-. This story made very little sense to me; there were too many things going on at once, and it wasn’t clear how they all fit together. Bryan Hitch’s artwork is visually impressive, but does not serve the story well. Too many many pages have giant splash panels for no particular reason. I feel like the widescreen technique should be reserved for particularly dramatic moments, but here Hitch uses it just for normal pages.

IZOMBIE #2 (Vertigo, 2010) – A-. Even though this is only the second issue, it’s difficult to understand without having read the first issue. The story seems to involve vampires, werewolves, ghosts and zombies all at once, and I can’t tell what is the unifying logic that holds the series together. However, each of the individual scenes in this issue is quite well written, and Mike Allred’s artwork is spectacular as always. His style does seem more suited to comedy than humor, and it creates the impression that this series is not taking itself entirely seriously, though there’s nothing wrong with that.

CAPTAIN AMERICA #41 (Marvel, 2008) – A-. I admit I’m not a huge fan of Ed Brubaker’s style of writing; his stuff tends to be too grim and gritty and realistic for me. However, it can’t be denied that he’s the best Cap writer at least since Mark Waid, if not since Roger Stern. His stories have an air of plausibility to them, even when they employ ridiculous characters like Arnim Zola. And even though this issue is part 3 of an ongoing story, it’s still fairly accessible. The real star of the show here, though, is Steve Epting’s artwork. He is one of the best storytellers currently working at DC or Marvel; in particular, he does action sequences better than possibly anyone else in the industry.

POWER PACK #4 (Marvel, 2005) – B-. This is the worst issue of this miniseries, largely because it ends with Power Pack more or less committing murder. They defeat a Snark and his human ally by arranging for them to be dragged into another dimension by a giant alien octopus. Neither the characters nor the writer seem to acknowledge that this act might have led to the villains’ deaths. Indeed, when Julie says that “that’s the last we’ll be seeing of them,” Alex replies “Thank goodness.” I don’t think this sort of behavior is appropriate to the tone of this all-ages Power Pack title. What makes this ending even worse is that in issue 1, this particular Snark was portrayed as a double of Katie Power; both characters felt they were being treated unfairly because of their relative youth, and tried to compensate by engaging in risky behavior. Other than the ending, this issue is more or less fine, but I don’t like the idea that the Power children would put their enemies in a situation of mortal peril, without expressing any guilt about it.

Text of George Washington University lecture

On Wednesday, I had the incredible honor of delivering the third lecture in this year’s Jenny McKean Moore Reading Series at George Washington University. I was invited by Professor Faye Moskowitz and Professor Lisa Page. The lecture was entitled “The Graphic Novel: A Gentle Introduction” and was accompanied by a Google Drive presentation which can be found here. The text of the talk follows, though it should be noted that this does not represent everything I actually said.

I’m very pleased to be here, and I’d like to thank you all and especially Professor Moskowitz and Professor Page for giving me this opportunity to talk to you about the grahpic novel. I have a deep passion for comics and graphic novels, both as a scholar and as a lifelong fan, and I appreciate the chance to educate other people on why the graphic novel matters and what it has to do with creative writing. In this lecture, I plan to begin with a brief explanation of what the graphic novel actually is, then I’m going to survey the history and the current state of the art form, and I’m going to conclude with some suggestions for integrating comics into creative writing practice.

So let me first say that the graphic novel is a form of literary art but it’s also a marketing term. The actual term graphic novel dates from the sixties, but it was initially popularized in the ‘70s by an artist named Will Eisner, who I will discuss later, and it was intended as a more respectable term for what is more commonly known as a comic book. So in terms of their formal elements, the graphic novel and the comic book are the same thing. The primary difference is publishing format; a comic book is a periodical published in magazine form, a graphic novel is a hardcover or paperback book. And the term graphic novel suggests a degree of seriousness that’s missing from the term comic; it seems more acceptable to talk about graphic novels than comic books in a place like this. But the formal elements of the graphic novel and the comic book or comic strip are the same. Essentially, graphic novels are a subset of the larger medium or art form of comics, and what defines graphic novels is that compared to other types of comics, graphic novels tend to be more serious and adult-oriented and they tend to be published in book format. Essentially, graphic novels are long-form comics.

So to understand how graphic novels work, we need to talk briefly about the art form of comics. SLIDE 2 A comic is a story told through a series of static pictures, usually with words. So a comic is not just an illustrated text, where the words tell the bulk of the story and the pictures just provide extra nonessential information. In the graphic novel, the pictures actually tell the story and we wouldn’t be able to understand it otherwise. Here is a very simple example. SLIDE 3 The caption of this cartoon is “What the – this is lemonade! Where’s my culture of amoebic dysentery?” Now the humor here relies entirely on the relationship between word and image. Without the image, we don’t know what happened to the culture of amoebic dysentery; without the text, we can’t interpret why the one scientist is annoyed and the other is shocked. Now some people argue that single-panel cartoons are not the same thing as comics, but I use this cartoon to demonstrate the difference between comics and illustrated texts: in comics, the pictures don’t just illustrate the words, they are essential to understanding what’s going on. Here is a more extended example of the same thing. SLIDE 4 Now it is also possible to have a comic where the story relies primarily on the text, but even then the pictures often play a larger role than they would in a traditional illustrated novel. And here’s another simple example of a comic where the humor relies on both words and images. I emphasize the importance of pictures in comics because I find that when people whose background is primarily in literature start to read comics, they often assume that the basic point of the comic is the words, and the pictures are just illustrations. And that’s not the case. In comics, much like in film, the pictures are essential to telling the story. Or rather, pictures and words, if there are words, need to work together, and this means that neither pictures nor words function in comics in the same way as they do in isolation. Comics typically employ a cartoony style of artwork rather than a photorealistic style of artwork, SLIDE 5 but this is not because of ineptitude; this is because cartoony images are easier to read than more realistic images. And comics typically employ a rather limited amount of text, because when a comic includes too much text, it slows down the process of reading and draws attention away from the images. A page like this SLIDE 6 is an example of ineffective comics storytelling.

So does this help to explain how comics work? Then let me explain what the graphic novel is specifically and how it relates to earlier genres of comics. And here I will focus mostly on the American cultural context; there are also many other independent traditions of comics of which the most important are Franco-Belgian and Japanese comics, SLIDE 7 but for reasons of scope I’m not going to discuss those in depth. So in America, comic strips published in newspapers started to become a significant mass medium in the late 19th century, partly because they were an effective way of using new color printing technologies. And comic strips back before World War II were absolutely gorgeous, nothing like the garbage that passes for newspaper comics today. SLIDE 8 The comic book, as a standalone publication rather than a newspaper strip insert, was invented in the 1930s. SLIDE 9 And until the 1950s, the comic book was a genuine mass medium, as popular as video games are today, but it was targeted primarily at children – I’ve heard that in the 1940s, over 90% of American children read comic books. But as with video games nowadays, the popularity of the comic book led to fears about its harmful influences on children, and in the 1950s, the psychologist Dr. Fredric Wertham led a nationwide crusade against comic books on the grounds that they caused juvenile delinquency. SLIDE 10 This led to the imposition of the Comics Code, a harsh code of censorship that specified standards of content that comic books had to follow in order to be sold on newsstands. SLIDE 11 The Comics Code is often seen as disastrous because it crippled the ability of comic books to engage with mature material and it also cemented the association between comics and children. And even today, when we think about comic books, we still tend to see them as a medium for children, even though, ironically, comic books nowadays are mostly read by adults.

But how did we get from the children’s medium of comic books to the adult medium of the graphic novel? One early influence was the tradition of woodcut novels by artists like Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel. SLIDE 12 These were called novels but they typically had no words, and they told serious stories with a high degree of artistic skill. But we can really trace the contemporary graphic novel back to underground comix of the ‘60s, which were able to avoid the Comics Code because the Code only applied to comics sold on newsstands, and underground comix were sold in headshops and other nontraditional distribiution channels. SLIDE 13 And they took advantage of this freedom to incorporate sex and extreme violence and drug abuse, but also to address more serious topics. One especially important underground comic was Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, which is about his struggles with religion and obsessive-compulsive disorder. SLIDE 14 Now this sort of thing helped to create a climate of greater acceptance of adult-oriented comics, and Will Eisner, who had been working in comics since the 1930s, was able to get a traditional print publisher to publish his book A Contract with God, which is often incorrectly described as the first graphic novel. Ironically this work is not a novel in the literary sense but a collection of four short stories which are linked by their focus on New York Jewish tenement life. SLIDE 15 And as I said before, Eisner described this work as a graphic novel because of the prejudice that comics were for kids.

But the work that led to the contemporary acceptance of the graphic novel was Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. SLIDE 16 Maus is by Art Spiegelman, who was a member of the younger generation of underground cartoonists, and it was published as a book in 1986 after being serialized in Spiegelman’s anthology Raw. In another example of the slipperiness of the term graphic novel, Maus is not a novel but a work of nonfiction, an account of his father Vladek’s experiences in the Holocaust. Maus is also an autobiographical work, because in addition to retelling Vladek’s story, Art Spiegleman shows himself interviewing Vladek and he depicts the troubled nature of his own relationship with his father. SLIDE 17 And the famous visual gimmick of Maus is that all the characters are depicted as animals, according to ethnicity; the Jews are mice, the Germans are cats, the Polish people are pigs, etc. Now when Maus first came out, people in the literary establishment didn’t know how to categorize it; the back cover of the book says “put aside all your preconceptions, this is a new form of literature” and a lot of reviews argued that Maus was not a comic, it was something entirely different. But I would argue that Maus is essentially an example of the same art form as all the other less artistically oriented comics we’ve just been looking at. And indeed, Art Spiegelman, in creating Maus, was deeply influenced by comic books and comic strips. What distinguishes graphic novels like Maus from earlier types of comic books are their level of seriousness and artistic ambition, or maybe to put it less charitably, the fact that they aim for a highbrow audience. Also, graphic novels are typically created by a single author, unlike commercial comics, where the writer and artist are usually two separate people. With a commercial comic book like Superman or Spider-Man, the primary selling point is the character, and the writer and artist are just hired hands working on that character, whereas with graphic novels, the primary selling point is the creator. And also, as I mentioned before, graphic novels are published in book form and they are often sold in bookstores, rather than comic book stores, which as we all know have a rather negative public image.

So the success of Maus helped lead to a graphic novel boom which is still ongoing. Graphic novels are now regularly reviewed in publications like the New York Times and the New York Review of Books, and are regularly taught in English courses – for example, in my current position probably half my colleagues have taught comics at one time or another. And I think that younger generations are starting to see graphic novels not as some new innovation but simply as another literary genre alongside prose and poetry. A few graphic novels, specifically Maus, Persepolis and Fun Home, have even entered the literary canon. As a lifelong fan of comics I find this to be an exciting development in many ways. At the same time, however, I believe that the current graphic novel boom has resulted in an excessive emphasis on certain genres at the expense of others. So I’m going to present a historical survey of the current state of the graphic novel, including a discussion of some popular genres, but I also want to suggest some other interesting trends in the field that are not getting sufficient attention.

So the most popular current genre of graphic novels is the autobiographical comic or graphic memoir. Notable examples of this include Maus as well as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which are the two other graphic novels that have achieved canonical status. These works typically deal with the cartoonist’s personal history, often including the cartoonist’s attempt to work through some sort of trauma. Fun Home, for example, which many of you may have read, is about how Bechdel’s father, a closeted gay man, died in an apparent suicide at the same time Bechdel herself was coming out as a lesbian. SLIDE 18 Persepolis is by an Iranian woman and it’s about her experiences in the Islamic Revolution and then as an emigrant in France. SLIDE 19 Other notable authors working in this genre include Lynda Barry, Phoebe Gloeckner, Craig Thompson, and the late Harvey Pekar. The graphic memoir is also an important genre in Europe. Besides Persepolis the most important European comic in this genre is David B’s Epileptic, which is about the author’s relationship with his severely epileptic brother. SLIDE 20 And as you can see, David B was a major stylistic influence on Satrapi. The graphic novel is attractive as a medium for autobiography because the act of drawing comics is in some ways intensely personal. When you read a comic, you are not just reading the author’s words, you are actually seeing the physical trace of the artist’s hand. Now this is not literally true in the sense that comics, unlike for example paintings, are mass-produced artifacts; what we see in a comic is not the artist’s original artwork but a photographic or digital reproduction thereof. And yet there’s still this sense that the comic we read is the direct result of the artist’s physical act of drawing, and this creates a sense of physical connection to the artist that’s not present in prose or poetry. Comics seem like a personal, intimate medium, and this is why comics and autobiography seem naturally suited to each other.

Closely related to graphic memoir are graphic history and graphic journalism, in which comics are used to chronicle real events from either the remote or the recent past. The most famous practitioner of this genre is Joe Sacco, who has used comics to create journalistic accounts of events such as the occupation of Palestine or the Bosnian war. SLIDE 21 And there has recently been an explosion of other works in this genre, ranging from Nick Abadzis’s Laika, about the first dog to be sent into space, to Josh Neufeld’s AD: New Orleans After the Deluge, which is a fictionalized account of Hurricane Katrina. Maybe the best testimony to the contemporary acceptance of the graphic novel is that a genuine national hero, Representative John Lewis, chose to use comics to tell the story of his experiences in the civil rights movement. His graphic novel March, which was illustrated by an award-winning graphic novelist, Nate Powell, was released last year, and I expect it to win a bunch of major awards. SLIDE 22 Now why is the graphic novel such a powerful tool for narrating past or recent history? Partly because it adds a visual element that’s missing from historical prose; comics allow you to depict not just what happened in the past but what the past would have looked like. In a comic you can depict even the most incidental details of the past in a visually realistic fashion. An example is Frank Young and David Lasky’s graphic novel biography of the Carter Family, the pioneering country music group. They were careful to depict even the most minute details of Appalachian life in the depression era; for example, there’s one scene where the Carters are recording in a studio and there are quilts hung up on the walls to keep out noise. SLIDE 23 And all the quilts are based on actual photographs of quilts from that period. That’s an example of the level of historical accuracy that’s possible in comics, and in order to replicate that sort of thing in a film, you would need a multimillion-dollar budget. At the same time, though, historical or journalistic comics don’t just give you historical accuracy; they also give you an account of history that’s filtered through the unique sensibilities of the particular cartoonist, and that contrast between historical truth and subjective interpretation is central to the genre.

So you might notice that again, a lot of these graphic novels are not actually novels but nonfictional works, and nonfiction has tended to dominate the discourse on comics both in the academy and among literary critics. I think this is partly a historical accident, because of the influence of works like Maus and Fun Home, and it’s also partly because works like these are easy for literary scholars to understand and to discuss in connection with prose literature. Maus, for example, is often used in courses on Jewish studies and Holocaust studies, and Fun Home is easy to use in literature classes because it’s absolutely full of references to literary works like Ulysses and The Great Gatsby. But in terms of sheer numbers the vast majority of comics are fictional. Now many of the most popular graphic novels are works of genre fiction like Batman or The Walking Dead, SLIDE 24 and works like these are important not only on their own merits but also as sources for other media like film and TV. And I assume these kinds of comics are of limited interest to this audience so I won’t say much about them. But there are also a broad range of graphic novels on more realistic themes. This genre is much too large to survey in detail, but a couple authors worth mentioning are the Hernandez brothers, Jaime and Gilbert, whose work focuses extensively on Latino/a and Chicano/a culture. SLIDE 25 And Chris Ware, probably the most important author of fictional comics in America now, whose work is notable both for the insane robotic perfection of the art and the horrible emotional bleakness of the storytelling. SLIDE 26 Jessica Abel’s La Perdida is about an American woman who travles to Mexico and finds herself completely out of her depth. SLIDE 27 The lesson here is that in comics it’s possible to tell stories about anything – like Harvey Pekar said, comics are words and pictures, you can do anything with words and pictures. I mean, you could say that the commercial comics marketplace is dominated by superhero comics and the literary comics scene is dominated by biographical and historical works, but those do not exhaust the possibilities of the comics medium. You can tell any kind of story in a graphic novel – though not necessarily in the same way you would tell it in a work of prose fiction. Comics are not limited in what they can do, and this is proven by the fact that in Japan there are comics, or manga, for essentially every audience and on every topic – I’ve even heard that in Japan they published a comics guide to estimating sewer construction costs.

Since I’m talking to an audience of creative writers, I should also briefly mention that the use of visual images in poetry has a distinguished history and that this tradition has strong affinities with comics. I suppose there is a notion that poetry is a purely linguistic or verbal phenomenon. But concrete or shaped poetry, where the typographic arrangement of the poetry helps to communicate its meaning, is a phenomenon going back centuries. SLIDE 28 And there is an equally long tradition of poets acccompanying their work with drawings or paintings or prints, ranging from William Blake to Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Stevie Smith. And poetry in comics form is actually a thing that exists. SLIDE 29 Probably the most famous example of this is the work of Joe Brainard. SLIDE 30 Comics also has affinities with the tradition of the artist’s book, where the design of the book and its physical layout on the page is just as important as its actual content. I’m thinking here of works like Tom Phillips’s A Humument or Anne Carson’s Nox. And to return for a second to prose fiction, literary authors like Jonathan Safran Foer and Mark Z. Danielewski and the late WG Sebald SLIDE 31 are increasingly incorporating photographs and creative typography into their work. Books like these are not comics but I think they’re becoming more prevalent for the same reason that the graphic novel is rising in popularity – that is, because we live in an increasingly visual culture and the old divisions between the word and the image, between poetry and painting, are increasingly irrelevant. Jonathan Safran Foer said this: read SLIDE 32 “I’ve never met an artist [sic] who wasn’t interested in the visual arts, yet we’ve drawn a deep line in the sand around what we consider the novel to be, and what we’re supposed to care about. So we’re in the strange position of having much to say about what hangs on gallery walls and little about what hangs on the pages of our books.” He was talking here specifically about book design, but I think the atittude expressed here also helps to explain the contemporary rise of comics. We no longer have this sense that literature needs to be confined to words on the page or that literature and poetry need to be separate arts. There is this general cultural consensus that literature can also be a visual experience or that visual images can be literary, and this is expressed in many forms one of which is comics. Of course another important aspect of contemporary visual culture is the Internet, and webcomics are a massively important segment of the contemporary comics landscape and probably have a significantly higher readership than print comics. I don’t have time to discuss webcomics in any detail but one that might be relevant to you is Grant Snider’s Incidental Comics, which is often explicitly about literature and writing. SLIDE 33

So this concludes my survey of the current state of the graphic novel, and I want to conclude by making suggestions for how to actually get started creating comics. And because I am primarily a scholar rather than a practitioner I only have limited knowledge about this myself, but I want to offer some basic suggestions. First, making comics is tough. I don’t think it makes sense to say that making comics is harder than writing prose fiction or poetry, but I think that comics and traditional literature offer different challenges. In comics, you have to pay attention not only to the text but also to the images and the size and shape of the panels on the page and the ways in which the text and image relate to each other. Even an element as seemingly unimportant as the style of lettering can have massive consequences – there is an old saying that when lettering is good, the reader doesn’t notice it, but when lettering is bad, nothing can ruin a comic book more quickly. However, there is also a caveat: you don’t need to know how to draw in order to create comics. Some notable cartoonists actually don’t draw particularly well, or they do but they intentionally choose not to. Jeffrey Brown is a good example. SLIDE 34 And in comics, like I suggested before, artwork is evaluated not by its isolated quality but by how well it serves the story. So in a first-year writing class, when I had my students make comics, I told them, this is not a studio art course, this is a writing course, and I’m not going to evaluate your work based on its merits but based on how effectively you use the medium of comics to make an argument. And if you absolutely CAN NOT draw AT ALL, there are even online applications that allow you to create comics using prerendered graphics and insert your own text. For example, here is a comic I created using a program called Bitstrips, which is perhaps most famous because of its association with some stupid Facebook memes, but there are more creative ways of using it. SLIDE 35 I even know people who have used this format to create comics about intersections between postcolonialism and the digital humanities. SLIDE 36 The lesson here is, anyone can do comics. Even people who are physically unable to draw with their hands – I know two different people who are quadriplegic and who draw comics by holding the pen in their mouths.

So how do you get started drawing comics? When I taught comics I used Matt Madden and Jessica Abel’s textbook Drawing Words and Writing Pictures SLIDE 38 which is primarily intended for beginning art students, but also provides a clear and lucid explanation of how comics work and what tools can be used to create comics and it also contains a series of creative exercises for developing various skills involved in drawing comics. But another way to get started is just to do it. Here is a simple suggestion for how to do that. One of the authors of this book, Matt Madden, also published a book called 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, which is a comics version of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style which is a collection of 99 different retellings of the same story. The basic story is this. SLIDE 39 But Madden goes on to tell it 99 different ways, such as by doing it as a monologue SLIDE 40, or showing the events from upstairs rather than downstairs. SLIDE 41 So one activity you might do, and I’m sorry we don’t have time to actually do this, but you could retell this story in a different way, using a different number of panels or different words or a different style of drawing, varying some aspect of the presentation but keeping the basic story the same. This is useful because it gets you thinking about how the effect of the story changes when the style of presentaiton is altered – what happens when you delete panels or add panels or change the camera angle – and in general, it helps you understand the connection between the story itself and the visaul style in which it’s presented. And that, I think, is the basic sort of thinking that is necessary in order to create a successful comic.

Questions?

Ten pages worth of reviews

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JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #652 (Marvel, 2013) – A-. Reading this issue makes me feel even sorrier that this series was cancelled so soon. Kathryn Immonen writes possibly the best version of Sif ever; I feel heretical for saying this, but I almost like her Sif better than Simonson’s. Even when written by Simonson, Sif just never seemed to have enough depth to serve as the main character in the story, but Immonen finds ways of making her exciting. This issue also includes a cute scene with Jane Foster, another character who, prior to Thor the Mighty Avenger, was not interesting at all, and when Beta Ray Bill appears near the end of the story, Immonen captures his speech pattern perfectly. I like Valerio Schiti’s artwork a lot, particularly his use of color.

CHEW #39 (Image, 2014) – A-. One thing I haven’t consciously noticed about this series is that it has an impressive ensemble cast, especially where female characters are concerned. Tony Chu is actually a far less admirable or proactive character than the women he’s associated with, and that’s kind of the point. For example, Tony spends this entire issue sitting on the couch in a depressive coma, while Amelia and Olive risk their lives to obtain the ingredients for a recipe that will revive him – by allowing him to get back in touch with the ghost of another major female character, Toni. Consider also that Tony is often portrayed as a bumbling klutz and a terrible father, while if any characters in this seires are consistently shown in a positive light, it’s Amelia and Olive. I’m not sure this series can truly be called feminist, but I’m also not sure it can’t.

FF #15 and #16 (Marvel, 2014) – A-. Both these issues are utterly adorable and hilarious. Matt Fraction’s departure hurt this series less than I expected, because while Lee Allred is not nearly as experienced or polished of a writer, his sensibility is a good match for his brother’s. The trouble is that the whole point of this story and of the entire run is to show Scott avenging himself on Doom in a painful and humiliating fashion, and I’m sick of that sort of thing. At this point there have been so many Doom-as-villain stories that it’s hard to come up with an original idea for such a story, and I don’t think that the Allreds succeeded in creating a genuinely new take on Doom. Worse, they reverse some of the genuinely original stuff that earlier writers did with the character. For example, they suggest that Doom’s heroism, as displayed in Jonathan Hickman’s run, is a sham.

Overall, though, I think this run was a success. Fraction and Allred had the impossible task of replacing one of the best FF writers ever. They accomplished it effectively, by presenting a version of the series which was both deeply indebted to, Hickman’s version and very different from it. Unfortunately I don’t think there’s any way that James Robinson can continue the tradition of quality that this series has established. One of the greatest periods in the history of this title is over, but it was fun while it lasted.

SUPER DINOSAUR #20 (Image, 2013) – B+/A-. This actually came out in August but I accidentally bought a duplicate copy of issue 19 instead, and I didn’t see another copy of #20 until last Wednesday. It turns out that this is the first issue of Super Dinosaur I’ve reviewed since I started this project, which speaks to a serious problem with this series: It comes out so rarely that by the time a new issue appears, I’ve forgotten what happened in the last issue. I know the overarching plot line is that Derek is trying to cure his comatose mother, but I forget what’s going on with all the aliens and the dino-men and stuff. However, this issue also reminds me of what’s awesome about this series. Super Dinosaur is the kid-friendly superhero comic that Invincible was originally supposed to be. It features Kirkman’s typically brilliant plotting and dialogue, but without his usual blood and gore. And Kirkman does a good job of conveying the sheer awesomeness of the series’s premise – when Derek says something is cool, as he often does, the reader tends to agree. Also, this series is hilarious when it tries to be, as with the scene in this issue where Derek and SD try to sneak into a party. Despite the lateness, this is a fantastic all-ages comic, and I imagine it would read even better in collected form.

ASTRO CITY #8 (DC, 2014) – A+. Based on its first two installments, this current story is the best multi-part Astro City story since Confession. This issue is slightly weaker than the first, if only because Winged Victory’s predicament is so dire that it’s hard to see how she can possibly escape it. This story is becoming a brutal demonstration of the ubiquity of antifeminism and the pervasive suspicion of strong women in American culture. Because this is a superhero comic, though, and one which is typically more optimistic than not, I feel like this story needs to demonstrate the possibility of effectively combatting antifeminism. I think that’s where this story is eventually going to go, because this issue ends with Winged Victory discovering who’s been plotting against her and preparing to fight back. And I am very much rooting for her; I am getting quite emotionally invested in this story, especially compared to The Dark Age. The other sort-of protagonist in this issue, though, is Joey, and this issue reveals what his problem is, but it doesn’t answer the question of whether Vic is willing to compromise her principles by helping him. I have to say that the Confessor’s appearance in this story seems gratuitous; it’s kind of cool to see Astro City’s versions of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman working together, but I think the essential themes of this story would have been clear enough without Ben.

MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC 15 (IDW, 2014) – A-. I’m starting to like Nuhfer and Mebberson better. I was fascinated by the premise of this issue, in which the Mane Six have to enter the fictional worlds of Twilight Sparkle’s books in order to heal damage caused by a bookworm monster. And the execution of this premise does not disappoint. The fascinating thing, from my perspective, is that the damage to the stories is represented as rips in the panel borders, which gradually vanish as the ponies “heal” the stories. That’s some fascinating metalepsis. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t understand Spike’s reference to the episode “Power Ponies” because I haven’t seen that episode yet; I need to do so at once. One of the things I love about Cook and Price’s MLP comics is that they include so much stuff in the background of each panel, and Nuhfer and Mebberson are starting to do this too; I especially like the panel where Rarity lets herself out of the tower by her hair.

FANTASTIC FOUR #9 (Marvel, 2013) – B-. I got bored with this series and quit reading it, but continued buying it anyway due to a misplaced sense of obligation or something. My principal issue with Fraction’s Fantastic Four (as opposed to FF) is lack of originality; it didn’t use the new characters Hickman created, because those characters were all in FF, and it often just seemed to be rehashing old material. For example, in this issue Reed and Ben go back to Reed’s college days to explore Doom’s origin. The interesting part here is Reed and Ben’s meditations on who, if anyone, was really responsible for Doom’s accident, but the problem here is that, as noted above in my review of FF #15 and #16, I’ve stopped caring about Doom as a villain. So although the writing in this issue is fairly effective, I had little emotional investment in it.

FANTASTIC FOUR #8 (Marvel, 2013) – B-. I read issues 9 and 8 out of order. Issue 8, in which Ben travels back in time to ‘20s or ‘30s New York, is marginally better than #9. I like how Hickman and Fraction’s version of Ben is much happier than usual; Ben is now capable of having fun and being effective, rather than complaining all the time. And the moment at the end where Ben leads the inhabitants of Yancy Street in a battle against gangsters is pretty inspiring. However, this story is quite confusing. It doesn’t explain how the original Yancy Street Gang, a criminal organization, evolved into the Yancy Street Gang we know. And the character named Petunia is way too old to be Ben’s Aunt Petunia, but then why does she have the same name? Some explanation would have been nice.

HAWKEYE #16 (Marvel, 2014) – A+. This would have been slightly more enjoyable if I’d known more about Brian and Carl Wilson and the Smiley Smile project, but even without that, it’s a deeply touching and well-crafted story. In the not-Brian-Wilson character, Fraction and Wu create a convincing portrait of a Bobby Fischer-esque personality, a creative genius who is incapable of living in the real world. I did feel frustrated when the story ended with Kate getting beaten to a pulp. Though the story did end on a somewhat happier note (until Madame Masque appeared out of nowhere), I think this is at least the second issue in a row where Kate suffers a humiliating defeat, and it seems like she’s not accomplishing much by being in California. This version of Kate is kind of hard to reconcile with the much more confident and successful character we’ve been seeing in Young Avengers.

FLASH #86 (DC, 1994) – A-. This is not the best Waid/Wieringo Flash story but it’s not bad either. This issue guest-stars Argus, one of the mostly forgettable new characters from Bloodlines, and the point of the story is that Wally and Argus hate each other because they’re too similar. It’s kind of a light-hearted interlude before the much darker story that comes next, in which Wally is sued by a woman who he failed to save from a crippling injury.

ADVENTURE COMICS #337 (DC, 1965) – A+. I was flipping through my newly acquired copy of Raymond McDaniel’s Special Powers and Abilities, which contains a poem about “The Weddings That Wrecked the Legion,” and I remembered I had this issue and hadn’t read it yet. This story has a convoluted and patently stupid plot which was presumably written as an excuse for the scene on the cover, in which two Legionnaire couples get married and are forced to quit the Legion. And like all Legion writers prior to Shooter, Edmond Hamilton wrote the Legionnaires as essentially interchangeable characters; it wasn’t until Shooter that the Legionnaires started getting distinct personalities. Still, this story has a serious emotional punch. When Imra tells Brainy “You can’t understand because your cold, unemotional computer mind can’t comprehend what love is,” it feels like she’s not just putting on an act. And Hamilton makes me sympathize with the two couples, who are unable to act on their mutual desire because of the Legion’s rule against marriage (as well as straitlaced 1960s morality). There is a lot of pent-up emotional and sexual tension below the surface of this story, and it ends by suggesting that even if the weddings were fake, the basic conflict between desire and duty is not just going to go away. Or as McDaniel puts it: “But now Garth & Imra & Jo & Tinya have had a taste / the clock’s ticking / see, Brainiac, that’s the problem / you’re always giving them ideas.”

STRANGE TALES #158 (Marvel, 1967) – A-. The Nick Fury story in this issue is a classic. It includes some incredible action sequences, as well as plot twists and illustrations that are almost surreal in their sheer ridiculousness. I mean, who but Steranko would have come up with the scene where Fury puts a Fury mask on Strucker, then puts Strucker masks on both Strucker and himself? The bizarreness of this plot twist is comparable to the visual weirdness of the closing scene that shows Hydra Island blowing up. The only thing is, I’ve read this story before, and it was better the first time. The Dr. Strange backup, which I hadn’t read before, is not nearly at the same level. This is the second appearance of the Living Tribunal, who is introduced as a cosmic being of “awesome” and “unimaginable” power, but the story does not succeed in its attempt to explain why this being, who could “destroy the earth if he but nod,” should care about an insignificant mortal like Dr. Strange. And besides that, it’s just a boring story.

DAREDEVIL #28 (Marvel, 2013) – A-. This is another series I’ve been buying and not reading, but I actually feel guilty about that, because this is one of the best current Marvel titles and possibly the best Daredevil since the ‘80s (more on that below). There’s a lot of good stuff in this issue, e.g. the tier of panels where Matt forces himself to smile when entering Foggy’s room, even though the smell of chemicals is making him violently ill. The art by Javier Rodriguez, who I have not heard of before, is genuinely quite impressive. I did feel kind of annoyed by the plot, in which one of Matt’s old bullies, who gave him the mocking name Daredevil, successfully guilt-trips Matt into defending him in court. Even if Matt was an egomaniac jerk in elementary school (which seems like a significant retcon), that is no excuse for bullying.

DAREDEVIL #26 (Marvel, 2013) – A+. This, on the other hand, is one of the best post-Miller Daredevil comics I’ve read. Besides David Aja, Chris Samnee is Marvel’s top current artistic talent, and his performance here is incredible. A couple panels here, especially the silent panel with Matt walking through the hospital ward, remind me a lot of Mazzucchelli. In terms of storytelling, Mark and Chris create an overpowering sense of fear and tension. I actually thought the villain was Mr. Fear rather than Bullseye, and that his goal was to drive Matt insane by making him imagine threats that weren’t there.
The real gem here, though, is the backup story, which is comparable to “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man” both because of its theme and its concentrated emotional power. In this story, Foggy meets with some child cancer patients, who are drawing a comic where a bunch of superheroes defeat a monster that’s a personification of cancer. There is a cool trick here where the kids’ comic is initially rendered in the style of children’s drawings, but then takes on a more realistic drawing style as the story goes on – it’s a nice analogy for the process of immersion into the story. But the truly amazing moment is when Foggy realizes that the kids actually believe this fantasy where superheroes can cause cancer, and he tells them very apologetically, “Superheroes can do a whole lot, but they… they can’t cure cancer.” Which is followed by two identical silent panels of the kids staring at Foggy, and then one of them says, “Duh, it’s a comic book.” The moral of the story, as stated on the last page, is that in order to survive, the kids have to believe their cancer is beatable, and that superheroes offer them a metaphor for how that might happen; for the kids, superheroes are a sort of fantasy therapy. I have rarely if ever seen such a powerful justification for the genre of superhero fiction.

BATMAN FAMILY #4 (DC, 1976) – B/B+. Surprisingly the best story in this issue is a reprint: “The Secret War of the Phantom General,” a Batman/Elongated Man team-up from Detective Comics #343. The coolest thing about this story is that it includes a few panels where John Broome talks directly to the reader from his office, and behind him you can see books labeled CATCH-22, DAVY (Edgar Pangborn), EC and PAINGOD (Harlan Ellison). Broome always seemed to me like a writer of rather conservative tastes, and it’s surprising to realize that he was keeping up with what were then cutting-edge trends in SF and literary fiction. Besides that, the actual story is an exciting adventure with impressive Infantino artwork. The original stories, starring Batgirl and Robin, are not nearly as good, even though the former is written by Elliot S! Maggin. The Robin story contains some subtle hints that Dick and Lori are in a sexual relationship. There is also one more reprint, about a clown who envies Batman, which is kind of cute but much lighter in tone than modern Batman stories.

HITMAN #10 (DC, 1997) – B+. The Garth Ennis comics that I’ve read tend to fall on a continuum from funny to serious, with Hitman at the left end and War Stories all the way to the right. Preacher is closer to the right than the left; even the humor in Preacher (e.g. Arseface or Allfather Starr’s bulimia) tended towards serious satire. Overall I prefer Ennis’s comedy to his serious material, but Hellblazer is my favorite comic of his because it most effectively strikes a balance between the two. Hitman is often so light as to seem insubstantial, though it’s certainly hilarious. This particular issue of Hitman is not the best; it’s so heavy on plot that there’s less actual humor than usual.

AVENGERS #302 (Marvel, 1989) – D-. This issue is even worse than Avengers #301, reviewed below. It barely even qualifies as an Avengers comic since the first half of the issue is devoted to Quasar and the West Coast Avengers, and the actual Avengers don’t appear until page 15. This period was one of the lowest points in the Avengers’ history.

DORK! #5 (Slave Labor, 1998) – A-. Most of this issue consists of three-panel humor strips, which are primarily one-offs with Myron the Living Voodoo Doll as the only recurring character. These strips are notable for their extremely dark and shocking sense of humor; I’m no good at classifying types of comedy, but I would say that the humor of these strips relies mostly on shock value (e.g. “The Kool-Aid Man in Rwanda,” which speaks for itself). The one longer story is a made-up history of the person who invented all the dirty children’s songs like “How dry I am” and “Jingle bells, Batman smells.” It’s pretty ridiculous, but the serious point is that these songs are a genuine part of the American cultural imaginary and that if one person really had written them, he actually would have been one of the most influential American songwriters. I admit, though, that I had never heard of “Milk, milk, lemonade” before reading this story.

ELFQUEST: THE FINAL QUEST #1 (DC, 2014) – B-. I just don’t know about this comic. I’m going to keep reading it due to loyalty and curiosity about the fates of the characters. But I feel sort of ashamed of reading it, and I say this as someone who is not ashamed of reading My Little Pony. I have written before that Elfquest is a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and I say this because of its lack of moral ambiguity and the excessively utopian nature of its world… though I don’t know, maybe I’m not giving the Pinis enough credit. Even if the story had been worse than it is, though, this issue would still have been worth buying because of the backup feature, which is a fascinating account of how Nate Piekos created a font based on Wendy Pini’s lettering.

COURTNEY CRUMRIN #6 (Oni, 2012) – B+. I really should be reading this series more regularly. The most interesting thing in this issue is the opening sequence, which contains an homage to Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, although I couldn’t tell what this sequence had to do with the rest of the issue. Besides that, this issue serves mostly to advance the plot.

DETECTIVE COMICS #791 (DC, 2004) – C-/D+. Both stories in this issue suffer from confusing storytelling and lack of explanation. The lead story is labeled “The Surrogate, Part One”, but I felt like I must have missed a previous installment, because I couldn’t tell who the characters were or how they were connected to each other. Possibly this was done on purpose to create a sense of mystery, but it seemed like ineptitude. This story contains two separate scenes in which white people correct the grammar of black people speaking in Ebonics (if that is still the correct term), which seems incredibly offensive to me. As I understand it, Ebonics has its own grammar which is entirely consistent and logical even though it’s not the same as that of standard English, and people who speak Ebonics are generally capable of code-switching to standard English where appropriate. So it seriously annoyed me to see Batman correcting a black person’s grammar. The backup story is even more impenetrable than the first story; I had utterly no idea what was going on in it.

BATMAN: LI’L GOTHAM #10 (DC, 2014) – A-. I guess my DC boycott is over; I’m willing to buy DC comics, it’s just that their New 52 material is of no interest whatever to me. This issue is up to Nguyen and Fridolfs’s usual high level of craftsmanship, and the opening sequence, which depicts Poison Ivy in different seasons, is just gorgeous. The weak link is the backup story, which sets up a mystery (Alfred appears to be carrying corpses into the mansion) and then offers a resolution (the corpses were just holiday decorations) which doesn’t seem sufficient to explain everything.

DOCTOR STRANGE #33 (Marvel, 1978) – B-. This issue feels like it’s over too quickly because Roger Stern wastes a bunch of pages on conversations between the Dweller in Darkness and other fear-related villains. And then later he wastes more pages showing Doc and Clea casting a spell to protect the mansion. This stuff is only marginally interesting and detracted from the actual plot, in which Nightmare turns a San Francisco hippie girl into a villain called the Dream Weaver. The pencils, by Alan Kupperberg, are undistinguished, but the inking by Rudy Nebres is quite impressive.

BATMAN ’66 #7 (DC, 2014) – A+. This is the first issue of this series I’ve read. Like another Jeff Parker comic, X-Men: First Class, Batman ’66 is a rare example of an adaptation that’s actually better than the original. I haven’t watched the ’60s Batman TV show in a very long time, but I kind of hate it; although I haven’t done the research on this, I would suspect that that show is largely responsible for the popular belief that comic books are all about ZAP! POW! BAM! Batman ’66, however, seems to take itself a little bit more seriously than the TV show did; the plot of this issue is entertaining and funny, but makes logical sense and avoids deliberate ridiculousness or banality. (For example, there’s a hilarious moment where False-Face masquerades as LBJ, but it makes perfect sense in context.) The other truly impressive aspect of this story is its historical accuracy, or at least its appearance thereof; it seems like a very faithful representation of the ‘60s. In fact, this is also why the backup story is less impressive: it’s a pretty funny and incisive satire of contemporary labor practices, but it’s full of anachronisms like “doing more with less” and “core competencies”, a term which Wikipedia says was coined in 1990.

JSA #63 (DC, 2004) – A-. It’s hard to believe now, but at one point Geoff Johns’s JSA almost seemed like it was following in the tradition of James Robinson’s Starman, as a comic that seriously investigated the topic of superhero legacies and that used old continuity in innovative new ways. This issue is a good example of that, and it also displays another aspect of Johns’s writing that I used to like. I refer to the way that in a Geoff Johns comic, you get the sense that everything is connected to everything else, and that everything in the story’s universe has its own story behind it. You might not know the story behind Sand or Hourman, but it’s clear that there is a story there, and you’re curious to find it out. That reminds me of how I felt when I started reading Marvel comics. One curious thing in this issue is that Daniel, i.e. the Sandman after Morpheus, makes a brief off-panel appearance; I had vaguely thought that that character was off-limits to writers besides Gaiman.

FANTASTIC FOUR #609 (Marvel, 2012) – A. This may have been the last Hickman FF issue I hadn’t read. This story focuses on Banner Jr. and the other characters from Nu-World. Apparently these characters come from some Mark Millar stories I haven’t read, but it’s impressive how Hickman integrates them into the overall fabric of his story, and he gives them a touching send-off. Also, the two-page spread depicting the god-ship Galactus is awe-inspiring. I haven’t seen much of Ryan Stegman’s artwork, but I like it.

CONAN THE BARBARIAN #51 (Marvel, 1975) – B-. This is a weird issue. It’s inked by Dick Giordano rather than Ernie Chan, which gives it a very different appearance from most Thomas/Buscema Conan stories, and the plot is almost excessively fast-paced and is full of magical occurrences that are kind of hard to swallow. This story is the second part of an adaptation of a non-Conan novel by Gardner Fox, a novel which I imagine must have been rather forgettable. It’s been a while since I read Conan #50, but I don’t remember liking that issue very much either.

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #97 (DC, 1971) – A. This issue, the second part of the Starbreaker storyline, is a classic, and Starbreaker is a very exciting and underused villain, a sort of DC answer to Galactus. Unfortunately Mike Friedrich’s writing does not hold up well. He had the same sort of histrionic prose style as Denny O’Neil, and he was not as good of a plotter. The really cool thing about this issue is that it incorporates a partial reprint of the JLA’s origin story. This sort of thing is usually done for deadline reasons (as in Avengers #150), but here it actually makes sense in context, although Friedrich could have done a more effective job of introducing it. Having just suffered a humiliating loss to Starbreaker, the JLA retreat to their headquarters, where they “examine our origin, re-create the spirit that first united the Justice League!” The actual origin retelling is a bit tedious, though it’s intriguing because I don’t think I’ve read the original Brave & Bold #28 story before, only the various later retellings of it. But by going through this story again, the Leaguers are reminded of the power of teamwork, and this is emphasized with an awesome panel showing the Justice Leaguers walking arm in arm, with the word TOGETHER! floating in the air. And this also helps them figure out how to defeat Starbreaker: by “harnessing the positive feeling of men” [sic], thereby depriving him of fear, which is the source of his power. It’s quite an inspirational moment, which reminds me a lot of other classic JLA stories, especially #200.

AVENGERS ANNUAL 2001 (Marvel, 2001) – B-. I love Kurt Busiek’s Avengers, but this annual seemed like more of an afterthought than an integral part of the story Kurt was telling, even though it does advance the overall plot in some ways. The plot of this issue revolves around Hank Pym and his quasi-split-personality disorder, and it ends with Hank reuniting the split halves of his soul (represented by Ant-Man, Goliath and Yellowjacket). This is a type of story that’s been told more effectively with other characters, e.g. in Incredible Hulk #377. The bigger problem is that it feels like too easy of a solution. I don’t think that Hank can ever sufficiently atone for having hit Jan in Avengers #213. That scene will be associated with that character forever, and I think any writer who uses Hank Pym needs to acknowledge that he is a wife-beater, as a necessary step to having him move on from that. This is a difficult balancing act and I don’t think Kurt completely pulls it off. There is also a backup story, which is not really a story but rather a series of answers to various continuity questions; it’s funny but also stupid.

MS. TREE QUARTERLY #2 (DC, 1990) – A-. I love Ms. Tree even though I have no interest in hard-boiled detective novels or films. Ms. Tree is perhaps the best example of how I’m willing to read any sort of content as long as it’s presented in comics form. This story initially made me rather uncomfortable because it’s about murders apparently committed by a Satanist church, and at first the story seems to be siding against the Satanists and with the local “concerned Christian citizens.” And personally I think Satanists are far less scary than fundamentalist Christians (please notice the key word there is fundamentalists, not Christians). But I should have had more faith in Max Collins. It turns out that the most fanatical anti-Satanist crusader is actually the killer, whereas the Satanists are fraudsters and pornographers, but not murderers. Like a lot of Ms. Tree stories, this story suggests that real-life controversies are morally ambiguous and that often both sides are partially wrong. There is also a backup story written by Ed Gorman, who is apparently a notable crime fiction author; however, the pacing is pretty bad, suggesting his inexperience with comics. In addition there is a prose story by Mike Baron, which reads like a plot summary rather than a story, and seems to engage in appropriation of Native American culture.

THE FLASH #302 (DC, 1981) – B+. This is kind of a funny story in which Barry falls in love with the Golden Glider for no apparent reason, but it’s also part of what appears to be a deep, complex ongoing storyline. Cary Bates may have plotted his stories even further in advance than Claremont did; the last 75 issues of this Flash series seem to constitute a single overarching plot.

BATMAN #603 (DC, 2002) – A. In this story Batman encounters the cop who was first on the scene after his parents’ murder, and who is now on his deathbed. My initial reaction to this was annoyance; I was like, does there have to be a story about everyone who was present at the Waynes’ murder? Does there have to be a reason for everything that happened that night? (Maybe I was unconsciously thinking of Batman #430, which is all about why the Waynes went to a movie that night.) But Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips make this story fascinating. The cop, Detective Sloan, is a fully fleshed-out character, and having known Gotham both before and after Batman, he offers an interesting perspective on Batman’s impact on the city. And it turns out that the one case he never closed was that of the Waynes’ murder, and there’s a poignant scene where he explains why he wants Batman to solve it, now that he himself can’t. You have to wonder why Bruce doesn’t just take pity on Detective Sloan and tell him that he, Batman, is Bruce Wayne and that he solved that case long ago. (Or maybe not – that has been retconned multiple times.) But Bruce does come close to that by saying that Detective Sloan was an inspiration to him. Either way it’s a touching piece of work, made more so by Sean Phillips’s unconventional panel layouts: each page is a splash page with numerous inset panels in the foreground, each one directly adjacent to the next.