Why I wasn’t at Wizard World Atlanta today

I have only been to one previous Wizard World show, and that was in 1999 when I was 15 and had never attended a major convention before. (See here for my report, which I’m too embarrassed to read now). So I didn’t have any prior knowledge of what to expect from Wizard World Atlanta. But red flags started to appear when I read the programming schedule, which contained nothing of any interest to me at all, and the guest list, which was dominated by actors and included almost no comic book artists whose names I recognized. Local comics creators who I would have expected to attend, like Andy Runton, Tony Harris and Van Jensen, were not listed (Van was there but not in an official capacity). Even worse was the exhibitor list. One major reason I go to conventions is to shop for old comic books, and there were only like five or six exhibitors with “comics” in their name. So I decided to go on Friday anyway, but with low expectations, and I only bought a one-day pass because I didn’t know if it would be worth going back.

It was as bad as I expected. In fact, it was easily the worst comic convention I’ve ever attended, to the extent that it even deserves to be labeled as such. The convention took place in one rather small exhibit hall which wasn’t even completely full, and only about a third of the hall was taken up with exhibit booths. Even then, there were way too many booths selling things that were not comic books, and not nearly enough of the other kind. Of the people who were selling comic books, there were only a few that offered cheap comics. I only saw one booth with quarter boxes (which were terrible) and two with dollar boxes. $2 and $5 boxes were slightly more common. I did end up buying some stuff — I spent around $100, much of which was for $5 or $6 comics, including some ’70s Batmans and two Claremont/Byrne X-Men. But I didn’t buy nearly as much stuff as I would have bought at one of the local one-day conventions, where I need to take a suitcase to carry my purchases. This was especially annoying since Wizard World Atlanta was held in lieu of the Atlanta Comic Convention that would usually take place at this time of year. Even though Wizard World Atlanta took place in a much larger space and lasted two days longer, it had significantly fewer comic book dealers, which speaks to the lack of emphasis on comics at this show.

This, in turn, is perhaps the biggest problem with the convention. As suggested above, the publicity for the show mostly emphasized all the media guests they were bringing, and ignored the comic book guests. It seems like Wizard wanted this to be a media-focused convention with a relatively small comics component. The trouble is that this is a perfect description of DragonCon, and Wizard World Atlanta is clearly not interested in putting in the level of effort that would be required to seriously compete with DragonCon. (And yet they chose to charge as much for admission as DragonCon does, despite having a vastly inferior guest list and slate of programming). I am fine with the lack of comics programming at DragonCon because there is so much else to do. But at Wizard World Atlanta, there was hardly anything else to do besides shop for comics and talk to the very few guests I was interested in seeing. Overall, I honestly don’t know why Wizard bothered putting on this show, or who their target audience was, because so little effort seems to have gone into it.

The state of Georgia has a large comics fan base and a vibrant community of artists, especially due to the presence of SCAD. The Atlanta Comic Convention used to be a much larger event, and its founder, Wes Tillander, is still active in promoting conventions. I think Atlanta can support a national-caliber comic convention. Unfortunately, Wizard World Atlanta is only a poor substitute.

Reviews! Reviews! And additional reviews!

5-22-13 

Two weeks’ worth of reviews.

USAGI YOJIMBO #3 (Fantagraphics, 1987) – B+. The main story here is a chapter of “Samurai,” the first long-form Usagi story, and consists of a flashback detailing Usagi’s history with Kenichi and Mariko. This early in the series, the Kurosawa-Mifune influence is very obvious, and Kenichi and Mariko seem like characters with rather limited storytelling potential, explaining why they haven’t been seen in decades. But you can still see Stan developing his personal style; for example, there’s a cute moment where Usagi says “Our friends are in danger” and then he and Kenichi both think “… and Mariko!”

THE WEIRD WORLD OF JACK STAFF #5 (Image, 2010) – B. Paul Grist’s art style appeals to me a lot. His linework is very crisp and clean, almost like Clear Line artwork but without the obsessive detail, and his lettering and page layouts are attractive. I assume his style is influenced more by British comics than by American comics, but I don’t know what his specific influences are. In this particular comic, he also does some interesting stuff with fourth-wall-breaking, having characters stand in front of other panels and comment on them. However, I couldn’t understand what was happening in the story.

SHE-HULK #4 (Marvel, 2014) – C+. This was the worst issue so far. Javier Pulido’s page compositions are still very impressive, but this issue consists mostly of action sequences, which are not his strong suit. In terms of the story, it’s kind of cool to see Jen and Matt Murdock talking about the law, but other than that, there is little of the realistic and detailed depiction of legal topics which made the last two issues interesting. Charles Soule missed the opportunity to have Jen ask Doom “Where’s my client, honey?”

LOKI, AGENT OF ASGARD #4 (Marvel, 2014) – A-. This, on the other hand, is the best issue so far. Al Ewing is finally starting to write with almost as much humor as Greg Pak – the sequence with Loki’s date with Verity is especially appealing here. And I think I’m finally starting to understand what’s going on with the storyline.

LUMBERJANES #2 (Boom!, 2014) – A+. This is the best new series of 2014 besides Ms. Marvel, and perhaps the best current comic directed at its target demographic. I can’t find Charles Hatfield’s review of issue 1, but if I recall correctly, his primary objection was that it was excessively cluttered and tried to do too much. I think that, number one, that’s a feature, not a bug. This comic is trying to pack a lot of storytelling into a small space. Certainly there are a lot of dangling plot threads at this point (what do the three-eyed animals have to do with the underground chamber filled with statues?) but I assume all these plot threads are going to come together at some point. Number two, Stevenson, Ellis and Allen are skillful enough that they’re able to accomplish plot and characterization at once. Even though none of the characters has gotten much of an individual spotlight yet, each of them has a unique voice and a distinctive appearance, and it’s not hard to tell them apart (it is hard to remember their names, but that’s just because it’s early in the series). At this point Riley is easily my favorite, followed by April, but I expect to become quite fond of all of them.

As anecdotal evidence of the success of this series, I bought this issue from Noelle Stevenson at TCAF, and when I came to her table on Saturday morning, there was already a long line and she ran out of copies of the regular edition before she got to me (I bought the variant edition instead).

VANGUARD #3 (Image, 1994) – D-. Typical early ‘90s Image crap. Only of interest to extreme Erik Larsen completists.

MARVEL ADVENTURES: SPIDER-MAN #18 (Marvel, 2011) – B-. This is from the very end of this series, when some issues consisted of reprints rather than new material. Both the stories in this issue appear to be new, but are completely continuity-free. Chat, who was the most interesting thing about Paul Tobin’s Spider-Man, does not appear. Without her, both the stories are just competent but average Spider-Man material.

TRANSFORMERS VS. G.I. JOE FCBD #0 (IDW, 2014) – B-. Transformers and G.I. Joe were the first comic books I ever collected, but it’s been twenty years since I read either of them, with the exception of other FCBD comics. I picked up this issue on FCBD because of the gorgeous Tom Scioli cover. The interior artwork is even better; practically every page is a crazy Kirbyesque composition with deliberately crude linework and lack of perspective. At TCAF, I saw Tom drawing with a mechanical pencil on some kind of paper that was clearly not a standard comic book page. That seems appropriate given the primal and anarchic quality of his art. It’s too bad that the plot and dialogue in this issue are just as crude as the artwork. Tom and John Barber’s story takes itself too seriously and collapses under its own weight.

INVINCIBLE #40 (Image, 2007) – B/B-. This was an average issue. Most of it is taken up with a long fight against the Sequids, although it’s an exciting and well-written fight scene. There is little else here that’s worth commenting on. I hate writing these reviews two weeks after I’ve read the comics in question, when I can’t remember my initial reactions on reading them.

DAREDEVIL #2 (Marvel, 2014) – A-. Due to long experience with Mark Waid’s writing, I somehow knew that when he spent the first three pages describing a hero who sounded exactly like Daredevil, it was going to turn out to be someone else instead. I thought Mark’s take on the Shroud was a little disappointing; this character has not been portrayed in the past as a smelly, drunk sadist. Again my memories aren’t clear enough to allow me to say anything more interesting about this comic.

INVINCIBLE #42 (Image, 2007) – A-. This is branded as a new-reader-friendly issue, but it appeals to existing readers as well, because it doesn’t just recap what has gone before, it also offers new material that effectively demonstrates Kirkman’s writing style. I particularly like the scene where Invincible battles a cyclopean giant who turns out to be an eight-year-old boy; this is a very typical Kirkman move. At this point I’m starting to lose patience with Kirkman’s writing (more on that below), but I think if I’d started reading Invincible with this issue, rather than in the #60s, I would have continued reading it every month.

SECRET SIX #1 (DC, 2006) – B+. This comic might have been an A if it had been as new-reader-friendly as the previous comic. This is the first issue of a miniseries, but the cover says “From the pages of Villians United!” and Gail’s story assumes the reader is familiar with that series, because she declines to explain who the characters are or what they have to do with Dr. Psycho. However, the characters are all fascinating and distinctive, and the dialogue is well-written – I especially liked Rag Doll’s line “I’m buying a monkey house and a variety of little monkey outfits.” Brad Walker’s art is not spectacular but it serves the story fairly well. This issue makes me want to read the rest of this series. My other complaint is that the first half of the story has the Secret Six rescuing someone from a North Korean prison camp. I think that using North Koreans as villains is a cliched and excessively obvious choice. Maybe they could have gone on a mission that involved a little more moral ambiguity.

SUPERBOY #63 (DC, 1999) – A-. I’m now awake enough to write some slightly more coherent reviews. Unfortunately it’s already 11:30 PM so who knows if I can get through all of them tonight. And let me warn you, there may be numerous tangents ahead. This is chapter 4 of Hyper-Tension, possibly the only good comic ever published that used Hypertime as a premise. As usual for the Kesel-Grummett team, it is extremely Kirbyesque. Grummett was more of a Kirby imitator than a truly original artist who used Kirby as an inspiration, like Ladronn or Allred or even Michael DeForge (seriously, I spoke to Michael DeForge at TCAF and asked him who his influences were, and he mentioned Kirby as one of them, which makes a surprising amount of sense.) However, Grummett’s artwork is very solid and attractive. The highlight of this issue was the alternate, non-evil version of Knockout, who is an extremely sexist character – almost everything she says is a sexual innuendo – but is a lot of fun nonetheless.

RAGMAN #1 (DC, 1976) – B+/A-. I was surprised at how good this was. Ragman is a fascinating character, a superhero who operates on a very small and local scale and who is obviously inspired by Jewish folklore, specifically the Golem. The story of his origin is farfetched and implausible, but Bob Kanigher effectively depicts Rory Regan as a caring man who is inspired to help others because of his underprivileged background. When Kanigher wasn’t writing insulting crap because he didn’t respect his readers, as was the case in his long run on Wonder Woman, he was capable of producing very touching stories. The art is by “the Redondo studio” over Kubert layouts, but doesn’t appear to be by Nestor Redondo himself. Speaking of Redondo, though, it appears that none of his Filipino komiks are currently in print in any language, which is a shame.

PROPHET #34 (Image, 2013) – B+. This is a typical Graham/Roy issue of Prophet in that it’s full of bizarre stuff which is presented as if it were normal. For example, the story begins with a bunch of Magnus Johns killing and eating each other until only one is left. I still can’t easily follow the plot of this series, but as I have mentioned before, the plot is not the point. The backup story, by Matt Sheean and Malachi Ward, is interestingly drawn, but the plot goes nowhere.

CONAN THE BARBARIAN #40 (Marvel, 1974) – B+/A-. This issue contains one of the funnier lines of dialogue I’ve encountered lately: “I am Conan, a Cimmerian, and I’ve come to help you… for want of anything profitable to do.” The artwork, unfortunately, is by Rich Buckler, the human xerox machine. He does a good job of imitating BWS, but it’s very obvious that that’s what he’s doing. The story is based on a plot by Mike Resnick (who has been in the news lately more for his obnoxious and sexist behavior than for his writing) and is a fairly formulaic Conan story, in which Conan battles both fellow thieves and magical monsters. Sadly this is one of the few remaining Roy Thomas Conan stories that I hadn’t read. For me, Conan is Roy’s greatest work, and “my” Conan will always be Roy Thomas’s version, rather than Robert E. Howard’s version.

HEROBEAR AND THE KID: THE INHERITANCE #1 (Boom!, 2013) – A-. As noted below, this is a reprint of the original Herobear story from a decade ago. And when reading it, one has to remember that at the time it came out, it was one of the only kid-oriented comics on the market. Currently it has much more competition, and I’m not sure how well this story would hold up in comparison to things like MLP: FIM or Lumberjanes or Amulet. It’s also a very very nostalgic work, to the point where it almost appeals more to parents than kids, especially with the Wonder Years-esque introductory scenes where The Kid talks about his childhood memories. The first line in the issue is “Childhood… what do you remember?”, which implies that the reader is also no longer a child. The best thing about this comic might be Mike Kunkel’s artwork; Herobear’s appearance at the end of the issue is a powerful piece of storytelling, and Herobear himself is awe-inspiring.

MIND MGMT #13 (Dark Horse, 2013) – A-. I’m still more interested in this series for the publication design than for the artwork or the story, but this issue told an intriguing story that I almost completely understood. I had some trouble distinguishing the characters, but it was eventually fairly clear what was going on. A fascinating thing about this issue is that each page includes Aragonés-esque marginal illustrations that are outside the “live area” box. If the conceit is that each issue of MIND MGMT is a report prepared for submission to the MIND MGMT organization, then these marginal illustrations are only visible to the reader, and MIND MGMT doesn’t know about them because they’re not in the live area. I didn’t figure out this point myself, I saw it in a review that I read while preparing my paper for CSSC, but it would be worth thinking about more if and when I write about MIND MGMT from an academic perspective.

THOR #153 (Marvel, 1968) – A+. This story is weird because it involves Loki fighting Thor physically. This would normally be quite out of character, but it’s justified because Loki has somehow stolen Karnilla’s strength. Another strange thing about this story is that Sif actually gets a chance to fight, though Loki easily kicks her ass. Of course the most impressive thing about this issue is Kirby’s artwork; there’s one amazing splash page that’s just a head shot of Odin wearing a helmet, but he looks incredibly regal.

DEMON KNIGHTS #11 (DC, 2012) – B+. I’ve been accumulating back issues of this because I heard that it was one of the few good New 52 titles. As usual with the New 52, this issue is not new-reader-friendly and the writer, Paul Cornell, makes only a token effort to explain what’s going on, but I was able to make sense of the story because the characters were mostly familiar to me. This series seems to be based on the idea of putting all of DC’s Arthurian characters together, and it works well. Cornell clearly has an intimate knowledge of the Matter of Britain, and his story effectively draws inspiration from both the Matter of Britain and earlier DC comics featuring Arthurian characters – Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers: Shining Knight seems like a major influence.

TOP SHELF KIDS CLUB FCBD 2014 (Top Shelf, 2014) – B+. I already had a copy of this, but I met Eric Orchard at TCAF, and he gave me a signed copy. Half of this issue is a preview of “Maddy Kettle: The Adventure of the Thimblewitch,” which I believe is Orchard’s first graphic novel. It’s drawn in a very distinctive and intriguing style which doesn’t remind me of anything in particular, and it seems like an original and funny all-ages fantasy story, involving a “floating spadefoot toad” and a girl from a family of booksellers. I expect that this book is going to have some rough edges because it’s his first work, but it looks very interesting and I may pick it up. The backup story is an excerpt from Rob Harrell’s “Monster on the Hill,” which has a fantastic premise but perhaps disappointing execution (I don’t think the monster is nearly scary-looking enough).

JONNY QUEST #15 (Comico, 1987) – A+. Jonny Quest may be the best independent comic of the ‘80s that’s never been reprinted. It’s that good. It’s also a textbook example of an effective transmedia adaptation, because Bill Messner-Loebs and his artistic collaborators clearly have a deep love for the original TV show, but they also use the comic book format to extend the universe of the show and to do things that the show couldn’t have done. For example, this issue is an extended flashback showing how Jonny’s parents first met Dr. Zin before Jonny was born. This story devotes a lot of attention to Jonny’s mother, Judith, who is a bit of a stereotype in that she’s more interested in celebrity gossip than science, but is otherwise an extremely formidable and forthright character. I don’t quite understand how such a rich and non-scientific woman ended up married to a scientist, but apparently that was explained in an earlier story that I’ve forgotten about. Judith was later retconned out of existence for no particular reason and replaced with a different character, which is a shame. The story itself is very exciting and full of surprising twists, and also touches on the topic of anti-Asian sentiment, which was a bigger deal in the ‘60s and ‘70s than I realized. The issue begins with a hilarious sight gag involving Hadji’s levitation powers, and ends with a heartwarming scene in which Judith reveals that she’s pregnant with Jonny. Let me reiterate that overall, this is an awesome comic.

WONDER WOMAN #45 (DC, 1990) – B-. This issue is disappointing in that it doesn’t feature Diana or her core supporting cast at all; it’s just a retelling of two versions of the myth of Pandora. I suppose this was necessary for continuity purposes, but I already know these stories or have the ability to look them up. The dialogue is by Mindy Newell, whose writing was sometimes a little clumsy although her heart was in the right place, and there are three different artists; two of them are Jill Thompson and Colleen Doran, but unhappily the third is Cynthia Martin, who is not nearly as good.

IRREDEEMABLE #8 (Boom!, 2009) – C+. The trouble with this series is that it’s the same premise as Miracleman: Olympus, and that story was better written and better drawn. I’m sorry to say this about Peter Krause because he’s from Minnesota, but he’s just an average artist. I’m more interested in Incorruptible, which has the exact opposite premise. I like Mark Waid’s work better when he’s taking the superhero myth for granted than when he’s trying to deconstruct it; there are other people who do a better job of that, and I’m not sure it’s worth doing anyway. 

ALL-STAR COMICS #60 (DC, 1976) – C+/B-. The artwork in this issue is credited to Keith Giffen and Wally Wood. I assume Woody just did the finishes, and who knows how much of the artwork was by him rather than his assistants, but it’s nice-looking artwork anyway. However, the story is lacking in interest; it’s just a bunch of fight scenes between various JSA members and a boring new villain. Even when Paul Levitz took over this series, he wasn’t able to overcome the fact that the JSA characters, other than Power Girl and maybe Wildcat, were significantly lacking in depth.

TERRA #1 (DC, 2009) – A- but only because of the art. Besides J.H. Williams III, Amanda Conner is the best artist who is still working for DC. Her drawing is gorgeous, especially her female bodies, facial expressions, and animals, and she fills every panel with subtle details and sight gags. For example, this issue includes a hilarious three-panel sequence where we start out looking at Power Girl, Terra and Dr. Mid-Nite from inside a rat’s cage, and then Dr. Mid-Nite’s owl sticks its head into the panel. Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray’s story is very formulaic, and if anyone else were the artist, this comic would probably not have been worth reading.

TRUTH: RED, WHITE & BLACK #1 (Marvel, 2002) – A. I remember this comic being extremely controversial when it came out, but I can’t remember why, and I suspect that the controversy was motivated mostly by racism. Probably people were uncomfortable with the notion of a black Captain America, and didn’t want to be reminded of the United States government’s history of experimentation on black people. Reading this comic twelve years later, I feel that the controversy, whatever its motive, was undeserved because this is a well-written, well-drawn and sensitive piece of work. Writer Robert Morales, who tragically died last year, introduces us to three African-American men from very different backgrounds, and in just a few pages he is able to develop each of them into a nuanced and interesting character. Kyle Baker’s artwork is simplistic and cartoony, but each panel is deeply expressive. I look forward to reading more of this series.

L.E.G.I.O.N. ’92 ANNUAL #3 (DC, 1992) – D-. This Eclipso: The Darkness Within crossover is twice as long as it needs to be, consisting mostly of boring fight scenes. The story is by Barry Kitson, who is a clumsy and inept writer, and the artwork is by Mike McKone, who I’ve never liked; something about his art just disturbs me. I think the results would have been better if Kitson and McKone had switched roles, even though as far as I know McKone has no writing experience at all.

IRON MAN #5 (Marvel, 1998) – A-. Kurt Busiek was probably the best Iron Man writer between Michelinie and Fraction, not that he had a lot of competition. Most recent Iron Man stories, both in comics and movies, seem to focus on the playboy aspect of Tony’s character, while Kurt was more interested in exploring Tony’s role as a businessman and scientist. The plot in this issue is set in motion by Tony’s business activities, and Tony gets the information he needs to save the day by calling a vulcanologist who he worked with on an earlier project, which is kind of cool. (It’s also an example of Kurt’s obsessive attention to continuity, because the character in question appeared in Captain America Annual #9.) Rumiko Fujikawa is an exciting new supporting character. Sean Chen’s artwork is just average but is well suited to computer coloring, which this comic uses extensively.

TEEN TITANS #40 (DC, 2006) – D-. In this issue Geoff Johns manages to take Miss Martian, perhaps DC’s most fun and least grim-and-gritty character, and suck all the fun out of her – he reveals that she’s actually an evil white Martian, not a good green Martian. Because that’s what Geoff Johns does. There are still some things about his writing that I like, but I don’t know how anyone can still seriously claim that he’s a writer in the Silver Age tradition. Silver Age DC comics were fun, and Geoff Johns seems to think that fun is a four-letter word. As another example of that, this issue is entirely taken up by internal squabbles among the Titans, as they try to figure out which of them is a traitor. I disliked this series when it came out (mostly because of the insufficient emphasis on Starfire), but in retrospect, I can see how it was a natural progression from Young Justice because it was a more mature take on the same characters. However, by the time this issue had come out, this series had clearly jumped the shark.

THE ADVENTURES OF JELLABY FCBD #1 (Capstone, 2014) – B. This is a cute and funny comic for kids. All three of the stories in the issue are very simple, but the titular monster is just adorable. I don’t plan on buying the Jellaby graphic novel, but I think it will do well. My main complaint is that I couldn’t tell the protagonist was supposed to be a girl until halfway through the comic, and I still think that in the first story, there is no way to tell she’s not a boy.

WORLD’S FINEST COMICS #276 (DC, 1982) – D+. This comic includes five stories, all of which are poorly written. None of the stories is anything more than a formulaic piece of filler – not even the Zatanna story. Zatanna is a hard character to make boring, but Paul Kupperberg manages to do so. This comic does have some good artwork; two of the stories are by Don Newton and Dan Spiegle, but surprisingly the best-drawn story is the one by Trevor von Eeden. This artist is totally forgotten today, probably because he was no more than a Neal Adams clone, but his artwork in the Green Arrow story is an effective imitation of Adams’s style if nothing else.

MARVEL TEAM-UP #104 (Marvel, 1981) – C-. This story could have been incredibly fun – it’s a Hulk/Ka-Zar team-up set in the Savage Land, with Modok as the villain. Imagine what Dan Slott or Fred Van Lente or Paul Tobin could have done with this premise. Sadly, the story is not written by any of them but rather by Roger McKenzie, who is much less fun. There are a couple poignant scenes where the Hulk mourns the fact that no one likes him, but otherwise this comic takes itself too seriously.

IRON FIST #7 (Marvel, 1976) – A-. Iron Fist is my least favorite Claremont-Byrne collaboration, but this comic was still a massive improvement over the previous two comics I read. Claremont’s story is exciting, and he gives Colleen Wing almost as prominent a role as Danny himself. But what really makes this comic interesting is Byrne’s artwork; his page layouts are interesting and varied, and his action sequences are thrilling.

TERRA #4 (DC, 2009) – A-. Everything I said about Terra #1 also applies to this issue. There are no cute animals in this issue (though the subterranean people are pretty cute), but there’s one hilarious wordless page where PG takes Terra shopping.

CATWOMAN #9 (DC, 2002) – A. This was part four of an ongoing story, yet it made almost perfect sense – quite a change from most of the comics I read. Like most Brubaker comics, this is a well-plotted, exciting and realistic crime drama. The artwork is by Brad Rader, and while he’s certainly no Darwyn Cooke or Cameron Stewart, he’s surprisingly good nonetheless. His work is in the same vein as that of Bruce Timm or Mike Parobeck.

GODZILLA: THE HALF-CENTURY WAR #4 (IDW, 2012) – A. More James Stokoe. Again the artwork here is just incredible, and would not be out of place in a Franco-Belgian BD album. Curiously, though, while Stokoe’s backgrounds are hyper-detailed, his facial expressions are much looser and seem to be influenced by manga. The writing in this comic is not quite at the same level as the artwork, however, I read this comic just after seeing the new Godzilla movie, and I think the comic had a far better story. Stokoe’s human characters are more interesting, especially the protagonist, who is exhausted after fighting Godzilla for decades and accomplishing nothing. And in this comic, the human characters are actually relevant to the plot (because the villain creates a device that can attract kaiju, and the heroes try to dismantle it), whereas in the movie, the humans have no impact on the story at all.

SAGA #19 (Image, 2014) – A+. This is a strong start to a new storyline. There’s a bunch of cool stuff in the first part of the issue. Toddler Hazel is just the cutest thing ever. The pet walrus is wonderfully bizarre. And I absolutely love Marko’s line “So just because I don’t make money means I’m not working, too?”, not just because it advocates for the value of housework, but also because it’s a husband saying it. That is surprisingly progressive. But the real highlight of the issue is the last page, which prompts two completely opposite reactions at once. First I was like, awww, Hazel saying “skish” is the most adorable moment ever, and then I read the line “This is the story of how my parents split up” and I was like, wait, WTF, this has to be a misprint or something, I can’t believe it. Obviously I can’t wait until next issue, and I refuse to believe that Alana and Marko are going to split up permanently, because how much would that suck.

RAT QUEENS #6 (Image, 2014) – A+. This is fast becoming one of the best comics on the stands. I think I’ve compared it to MLP before; it’s obviously the exact opposite in terms of tone and age-appropriateness, but it’s comparable in that it makes an equally sincere effort to develop each of the characters and to distinguish each of them from the others. In this issue Wiebe and Upchurch give a lot of exposure to each of the four Rat Queens, especially Dee, about whom we learn some rather surprising information. It’s surprising that this comic, whose creative team is entirely male and which is inspired by a stereotypically male-dominated hobby, is one of the most feminist comics on the stands. It also contains some laugh-out-loud funny moments (especially Betty eating the mushroom people) as well as some High Octane Nightmare Fuel, particularly the last page, which is beautifully disgusting.

MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDS FOREVER #5 (IDW, 2014) – B+. Considering the premise of this issue, the cover really ought to have said “Friends Furrever.” Speaking of the cover, it may actually be funnier than the rest of the comic; I especially like the bear that wants toilet paper, although I assume that this joke will probably go over many readers’ heads. I love the premise of Fluttershy being able to talk to animals, and Thom Zahler does some fun stuff with it. Fluttershy’s double-takes on realizing that the squirrel and the bird can talk are hilarious. He also writes great dialogue for Zecora, though I have always thought that this character is a rather disturbing stereotype. The biggest problem with this comic, though, is that the story is overly simple, and the explanation for why the animals can talk is anticlimactic.

INVINCIBLE #111 (Image, 2014) – F. My initial reaction after reading this comic was that it was going to be my last issue of Invincible. I’ve calmed down a bit now, and I feel that I’ve been reading this comic long enough that I’m willing to give Kirkman another chance. However, I still think this comic is deeply disturbing. I started reading Invincible in the #60s, assuming that it was meant to be a modern take on a classic superhero comic. I quickly gave it up because I was shocked at the level of violence. I later started reading Invincible again and gradually came to feel that while the violence was a significant part of the series, it was always counterbalanced by optimism. Invincible is a hero who genuinely tries to do the right thing, even if he can’t always succeed. This issue, though, was disgustingly violent even by Kirkman’s own standards. Worse, much of the violence was directed at a pregnant woman. Given that superhero comics are currently suffering from a huge misogyny problem, I think violence against women is difficult to justify even when there’s a compelling narrative reason for it. What’s even worse is violence against women for no reason, which I think is exactly what happens in this issue. Robot tortures Eve not because he thinks it’ll accomplish anything, but just to make Mark angry. His line “This is the only way I can hurt you… through her” implies that his actions are motivated by pure sadism. So basically, this is an example of Women in Refrigerators. I’m going to give Kirkman one more chance, but if Eve or the baby dies, or if Robot escapes punishment for his actions, then I’m done with this series.

The one thing I liked about this issue is that the old man on page 1 is clearly supposed to be Pa Kent.

(Incidentally, I never reviewed Invincible #110 because it’s been sold out at every store I’ve visited. That seems a bit disturbing.)

ASTRO CITY #12 (DC, 2014) – B+. This is a step down in quality from last issue. Ned is a fascinating character, especially because of his fascination with clothes. I actually kind of want to show this issue to my grandfather, who loves men’s clothing almost as much as Ned does. I also appreciate that Kurt openly addresses the question of Ned’s sexuality, even if he doesn’t explore it in detail. However, the end of the issue is anticlimactic; it feels as if Kurt didn’t know how to end this story, so he just stopped it at an arbitrary point.

A couple other points. The letter writer who referred to Winged Victory as a “feminazi” ought to be banned from reading this comic. Also, I just now realized that this issue was drawn by Graham Nolan rather than Brent Anderson. I suppose the reason I didn’t notice is because, first, the lettering and coloring are the same, and second, the writing in Astro City tends to be far more noticeable than the artwork. Still, it’s kind of sad that Brent Anderson’s run on this series is no longer unbroken.

AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #5 (Archie, 2014) – A. This is a satisfying conclusion to the first story arc. Smithers is an interesting choice as the narrator; he’s basically the same character as the protagonist of The Remains of the Day, but he offers a completely unique perspective on the Archie characters. As usual, half the fun of this issue is that Aguirre-Sacassa gets to do things that would be completely taboo in the regular Archie comics. For example, he strongly implies that Veronica’s dad was having multiple affairs during his wife’s lifetime. I like that these issues have started to include reprints from the ‘70s Red Circle line; the reprint in this issue was a story I hadn’t read before.

<SILVER SURFER #2 (Marvel, 2014) – A. This was a hilarious issue. Slott and Allred are an effective creative team for this series because they both have a talent for beautiful weirdness. Besides Kamala Khan, Plorp is the best new Marvel character of the year. I wonder who would win in a fight, him or the Tranquility Frog from Astro City #11. I also like Battle-Lon, and it’s a poignant moment when you realize that his son is dead. This issue is full of other subtle cute moments as well, like the phrase “shaked milk” and Zed holding up the telescope to his third eye. This is just a very fun comic and I look forward to future issues.

CAPTAIN MARVEL #3 (Marvel, 2014) – A+. This is another extremely fun science fiction comic featuring some weird aliens – I especially love the panel where we discover that the old lady has a lizardlike ruff around her neck. But this issue has a completely different mood and art style from Silver Surfer, and this proves that unlike DC, Marvel is willing to allow its artists some creative freedom and does not force everyone to conform to a narrow house style. As with last issue, Rocket Raccoon and the cat stole the show this issue, but the alien girl is also a fascinating character. And the end of the issue sets up a truly difficult moral dilemma.

AVENGERS TWO #2 (Marvel, 2000) – B+. This issue is way too continuity-heavy. It would be impossible to understand without intimate knowledge of Wonder Man’s history, and it draws heavily upon Wonder Man’s solo series, which was not particularly good. Still, this is a fun Avengers story, very much in the vein of Roger Stern’s classic Avengers run. It’s appropriate that this series was a spinoff of Kurt Busiek’s Avengers, because Kurt and Rog have very similar sensibilities.

SUICIDE SQUAD #2 (DC, 1987) – A. I am beginning to understand why this series is so fondly remembered. The key moment in this issue is when Captain Boomerang has a chance to save his teammate Mindboggler from being shot, but decides not to bother, because he doesn’t like her. Of course nowadays this sort of thing happens in superhero comics all the time, and this series may have had a net negative influence, in that it popularized the concept of a team of superheroes who were really villains at heart. But at the time it was groundbreaking, and John Ostrander is a much better writer than most of the people who have imitated this series.

KANE #28 (Dancing Elephant Press, 2000) – B-. This issue was very light on content; because each of Paul Grist’s pages has just a couple panels, it was almost as quick of a read as an average chapter of manga. Given the shortness of the story, it’s hard to assess the quality of Grist’s writing. However, I really like his artwork, which makes very effective use of black and white.

AZTEK: THE ULTIMATE MAN #6 (DC, 1997) – C+. Aztek has the reputation of being a unique, quirky series, but this issue was just a very formulaic Joker story. And as with much of Morrison’s late work, it was hard to understand what was going on. I didn’t particularly care for N. Steven Harris’s artwork either.

HAWKEYE #15 (Marvel, 2014) – A+. I get the impression that people are becoming a little tired of this series, or that the novelty is wearing off, but I liked this issue a lot. The storytelling continues to be very exciting and fast-paced, and David Aja is not only Marvel’s best current artist, he’s also entirely unlike anyone else currently working in American commercial comics. I think this is because he’s Spanish and he comes from a different artistic tradition than that of his peers. I liked this issue’s crossword puzzle motif, though I wish it had been emphasized even more.

ROCKET GIRL #4 (Image, 2014) – B. This is not one of the best comics on the stands, but I like it anyway and I’m willing to keep supporting it. Amy Reeder’s dramatic and action-packed artwork is the main draw of the series. Practically every page in this issue is a full bleed, and the way she uses page layouts is reminiscent of manga. Montclare’s story is not as exciting as the artwork, though I still love Dayoung as a character.

WONDER WOMAN #16 (DC, 2013) – C. This issue included about 20 different characters, most of whom were never named or identified in any way. Like just about every other New 52 comic, this issue completely ignores the old rule that every issue is someone’s first issue. And it’s not even my first issue of Azzarello’s Wonder Woman and I was still completely baffled as to what was going on. The more serious problem is that this comic does not feel like a Wonder Woman story at all; not only does Wonder Woman only appear on a couple pages, but the story has no connection to the Wonder Woman mythos. It’s essentially an entirely new intellectual property with the same name. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but it does make it hard for me to connect with the series.

ACTION COMICS #838 (DC, 2006) – A+. This issue is a collaboration between the best current writer of Silver Age-style superhero comics (Kurt Busiek) and the worst (Geoff Johns). Luckily the issue appears to have been influenced more by the former than by the latter. I’ve mentioned before that I think Kurt is the best Superman writer since Elliot Maggin (besides Alan Moore), and the reason is because he has such a deep understanding of the character. In this issue and elsewhere in “Up, Up and Away,” he shows how Superman is defined not by his powers but by his passionate concern for others; perhaps the real lesson from this story is that Clark Kent is just as much of a superhero as Superman. This issue is also notable for its portrayal of Luthor. I think I’ve said before that for me, the Silver Age mad scientist Luthor is much more interesting than the ‘80s corrupt businessman Luthor, and the Luthor in this issue is clearly based on the former rather than the latter.

A brief thought prompted by the Santa Barbara shootings

It is probably offensive to try to draw a connection between the Santa Barbara shootings and the recent controversies over sexism in the SF and comics communities, but I’m going to try anyway. Elliot Rodger’s beliefs are the logical extreme of a misogynistic mentality which is very common in the geek community. Elliot Rodger believed that women are no more than sex objects, and that men are entitled to sex from any woman they want. This same mentality is at the root of many of the recent incidents where male comics professionals (Brian Wood, Scott Lobdell) have sexually harrassed female colleagues. But more broadly, comic books, as well as other popular media, are often complicit in fueling this mentality. Depicting women as sex objects, and implying that men are entitled to any woman they want, is exactly what superhero comics do. (See point #5 in this article by David Wong.) 

This is why it’s so important that we condemn sexist behavior by comics and SF professionals and sexist depictions of women in comics and science fiction. It’s equally important to support works of popular culture that work against sexist atittudes — My Little Pony and Lumberjanes and Ms. Marvel come immediately to mind. I’m not suggesting that Elliot Rodger killed people because of popular culture. But I do think that popular culture is part of what’s created our culture’s misogynistic climate, and that popular culture also has the power to chip away at misogyny. 

CSSC presentation

Posting this here so I can read it off my phone if necessary. Accompanying presentation is here: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1_FzifkmD6t-3M7fG_xQD0oEE5yIFAJp_FWaO6L8zFwM/edit?usp=sharing

SLIDE 1 I’m very glad to be here. I presented at this conference back when it was The New Narrative and I’m glad to see how much it’s grown. This paper is based on my ongoing book project, Between Panel and Screen: Comics, the Future of the Book, and the Book of the Future. As the title indicates, this book is concerned with what comics can tell us about the future of the book both as an information technology and as an art form. And my overarching assumption in the book is that the book of the future will be neither purely print nor purely digital but that it will be a hybrid of both. It is often believed that technologies like the iPad and Kindle and Amazon.com are going to destroy physical books, that the paper book is an inevitably dying medium. SLIDE 2 There is a massive body of critical literature that expresses nostalgia for the printed book and bemoans its inevitable demise. This attitude is so common that Ben Ehrenreich gave it a name: “bibilionecrophilia: the retreat of the print-faithful into a sort of autistic fetishization of the book-as-object.” And yet there have been recent indications that the book is not in fact dead. On May 1st, in a Wired Magazine article called “Why the Smart Reading Device of the Future May Be Paper,” Brandon Keim (KIME) surveyed a wide variety of studies showing that comprehension was reduced when readers used e-books rather than printed books and that there was still a large constituency of readers that preferred print, despite the greater portability and convenience of e-books. Keim’s argument was similar to that of many others who complain about digital media, but the novel point he introduced was that paper and digital can be complementary rather than mutually exclusive. He suggests: “Maybe it’s time to start thinking of paper and screens another way: not as an old technology and its inevitable replacement, but as different and complementary interfaces, each stimulating particular modes of thinking. Maybe paper is a technology uniquely suited for imbibing novels and essays and complex narratives, just as screens are for browsing and scanning.” SLIDE 3 This argument is a little reductive, but it gets at the central point that I’m trying to make, which is that paper and digital don’t have to be mutually exclusive because they each serve different purposes. Perhaps the paper book is ultimately going to go the same way as the vinyl record, SLIDE 4 which seemed like a dead technology but has made a comeback because of a small but economically significant group of customers who believe it provides a superior listening experience to MP3s.
So why do printed books provide a superior reading experience to e-books? Principally because of greater material richness. And bear with me because I promise this paper is about comics, we’ll get there soon. Compared to e-books, paper books are more interesting on a visual level, in terms of the layout of the text on the page, and also on a sensory level, in terms of the feel and physical construction of the book artifact and even its smell. SLIDE 5 And a significant trend in American prose fiction right now is the accentuation of the physical and visual characteristics of the printed book. There have been a number of recent commercially released books that do bizarre things with typography or physical layout. I’ll just show some examples: Anne Carson’s Nox SLIDE 6, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes SLIDE 7, Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions SLIDE 8, Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts SLIDE 9. Now a few decades ago this sort of formal experimentation was limited to expensive limited edition artists’ books. But all the books I just showed you are commercially released books which I’ve seen at my local Barnes & Noble, SLIDE 10 which is what we call Indigo/Chapters in the United States. And the reason why books like these are becoming more common is specifically because of competition from e-books. Garth Risk Hallberg uses the term Kindle-proofing as a tongue-in-cheek label for the phenomenon where authors employ material or typographical features that are impossible to replicate in digital format. A book like A Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games can be digitized without obviously changing the basic nature of the reading experience, SLIDE 11 notice I said obviously, but something like House of Leaves SLIDE 12 is impossible to replicate on the Kindle without causing serious and immediately visible changes in the basic structure of the text. And I should also note that Kindle-proofing is motivated by the need for the prose book to compete with the visuality and interactivity of digital media, but paradoxically, Kindle-proof literature is also part of the same overarching cultural phenomenon that gives rise to digital media. In the wake of the graphical user interface, we are witnessing a general cultural turn away from the gray page of crystal goblet typography and toward visuality and expressive graphic design, and this trend is exemplified by the current popularity of both e-books and Kindle-proof print books, as well as, of course, the rise of the graphic novel.
So now we finally begin to see why comics are relevant in this context, because if print books are trying to compete with e-books by emphasizing their physical and sensory properties, then comics are already doing that very effectively, and prose fiction and other prose genres can take lessons from comics in terms of how to make reading a visual and physical experience. In prose fiction, Kindle-proofing is still only a minor tendency. In comics, it is the norm; you could almost say that every comic is Kindle-proof to the extent that when a print comic is digitized, the difference is much more obvious than in the case of a prose novel. In that sense, the literary novel, to the extent that it employs the Kindle-proofing technique and pays attention to the physical structure of the page and the physical properties of the book object, is taking conscious or unconscious inspiration from the graphic novel. Another way to say this is that the more visually interesting the prose novel becomes, the more it resembles the graphic novel.
So reading comics helps us come to grips with the increasing prominence of the graphic surface of the page and the physical artifact of the book, not just in comics but in reading more generally. Comics reading is all about surfaces. If reading a prose text is typically about penetrating into the text in depth, looking through the graphic appearance of the words on the page to the nonverbal concepts that those words connote, then reading a comic is an act of scanning laterally across the surface of the page. SLIDE 13 Now this is not just true of comics. Terry Harpold writes that “reading is, before it can be anything else, surface work,” that there is a “crisis of surfaces that reading represses and memorializes, and that rereading, especially close, critical reading, must repeat.” But I would suggest that this crisis of surfaces tends to be more visible in comics than in other media. In comics, compared to prose fiction, it is difficult to avoid the realization that you are engaging with a physical, tangible reading surface. And comics often enforce this realization. Think of all the comic books with infinity covers, or comics where the cover appears to be torn away to reveal the first page SLIDE 14, or comics that ask you to navigate through the pages in non-linear order SLIDE 15
Therefore, in the first place, comics scholarship needs to be attentive to the importance of material properties such as lettering, typography and publication design on the reading experience. Peter Wilkins asks, “Is colour in comics equivalent to typography in prose fiction? To answer this question we would have to do a detailed analysis of reader’s responses to the differences between the colour and black and white versions of the same text, say Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim which is being re-released in colourized form. We should probably conduct such analyses because it would help us understand the differences and similarities between comics and prose narratives in terms of how we process information.” But this sort of analysis is important not just because of what it tells us about comics, but because of what it tells us about reading more generally, about the ways in which reading is conditioned by its physical and material form.
Even more than that, reading comics can help us understand the ways in which the book of the future can use its own visual and physical substance as a tool for creating meaning. One way that print books can retain their relevance is by not only accentuating their own physical and visual qualities, but by actually using those physical and visual qualities as tools for signification. The book of the future could function as what Katherine Hayles calls a technotext, a text that interrogates the inscription technology that produces it, and creates reflexive feedback loops between form and content. And again, comics are particularly good at doing all of that. I want to give a couple examples to clarify this. First, since I’m in Toronto, I’ll talk about Scott Pilgrim. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim books are intensely self-reflexive about their own materiality. There are numerous scenes where characters show awareness of the fact that they’re in a comic book, like when Scott tells Ramona “My last job is a really long story, filled with sighs. Maybe we can get into it in a later volume.” But when the Scott Pilgrim books were reprinted in color, O’Malley took the blurring of the line between text and paratext to another level by having the books themselves actually acknowledge that they were being reprinted. SLIDE 16 In the black and white edition of volume 3, Scott asks Ramona “Is that your natural hair color?” and Ramona replies “What? No. Maybe. I guess it could be.” And then there’s a footnote that says “NOTE: this book is in black and white.” So this kind of implies that in the black and white edition, the world that the characters inhabit is black and white and they can’t see colors, so Ramona doesn’t know what her natural hair color is. So obviously, this joke only works when the comic is in black and white, and O’Malley realized this, because in the color edition of this volume, the footnote instead says “NOTE: this was funnier in black and white.” So the text itself had to change in order to acknowledge the fact that the characters no longer live in a black and white world. And I wonder if we can imagine other cases where physical changes to the book, such as the introduction of a new typeface, would actually change the story. Like, what would a prose novel look like if the characters were aware of the typeface in which the story was printed.
But let’s look at an even more complicated example of how comics can use their own physical and material features as signifying tools, in ways that are very rare in prose fiction. Consider Matt Kindt’s ongoing series from Dark Horse, MIND MGMT. Now when Kindt started this project he had only done graphic novels and had never done a monthly comic before. So he asked himself: “”What can I do to make this monthly comic something I’d actually enjoy or want to pick up? I started to look objectively at the monthly comic and what it’s about. It’s sort of an ugly medium when you think about it – the covers and the ads and everything. I’m just trying to find a way to subvert that and use all that stuff in the story I’m telling in a way that makes sense.” SLIDE 17 And so the way Matt Kindt took advantage of the unique formal features of the monthly comic book was to put material on the back covers and the inside front covers that was relevant to the story. On the inside front cover of each issue is an installment of a chapter of an ongoing story called “The Second Floor” which is tangential to the main plot. The back covers often feature fake ads that are somehow relevant to the story, or other similar features. On the back cover of issue 8 is a fake ad for a romance novel which features some of the characters in the main story. PASS AROUND The back cover of issue 12 is designed to look like a torn-out page from a Mind Management Psychological Profile and Assessment Questionaire, and on this cover, even the UPC code is incorporated into the narrative framework, because right below the UPC code it says “When finished, please use the following code to catalog this entry.” And only some of this material appears in the hardcover and trade paperback collections. This use of reflexivity even extends inside the actual story itself. Each page of the comic has a light blue border around the edge, and at the top of each page the following statement appears in the same light blue color: “When filing report all essential details must fall within this solid “live area” box. This is the border for a standard, non-bleed field report.” SLIDE 18 So this implies that each page of the comic we’re reading is an extract from a field report filed by an agent of the titular spy organization, and that these reports are filed in the form of original comic art pages. Just in case you don’t know this. In a piece of original art, the live area is the area in which all artwork and lettering has to be contained in order to ensure that it will show up in the finished comic. A “bleed” is when the artist intentionally draws outside the live area in order to make the artwork extend to the very edge of the page. SLIDE 19 So in MIND MGMT, by using these terms, Kindt makes the reader aware of the fact that he or she is reading a comic book, but at the same time, he incorporates the existence of the MIND MGMT comic book into the narrative universe of MIND MGMT. To explain this more simply, Kindt seeks to give us the impression that the MIND MGMT comic book is an artifact that originated from within the same fictional universe it depicts. And this is kind of a cool trick. Some prose authors have attempted to do the same sort of thing – for example, the Harry Potter spinoff books, Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, are supposed to look like the actual textbooks that Harry, Ron and Hermione used. SLIDE 20 But it is still very rare for commercial fiction to actually use its own paratextual or physical features for narrative purposes in the way that MIND MGMT does. When was the last time you read a novel where the copyright page or the inside back cover actually contained material that enhanced the story? And a comic like MIND MGMT is a prototype of how the physical book can compete with the digital book through the intelligent use of its physical materiality.
In conclusion, I think one reason why comics matter in 2014 is because they represent the best prototype we have of what the printed book of the future is going to look like. I believe that in order to survive, the printed book is going to have to become more like a comic book. And to conclude, although this point is outside the scope of the present paper, I think comics are also a prototype of how the digital and the print book can coexist and productively inform each other. In this paper I’ve made it sound like printed books and e-books are in competition with each other, but what I was trying to suggest with the vinyl records analogy is that the two types of books actually fill different niches in the market and that they don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. We can even imagine books that involve both print and digital technology at once – an early example of that is Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen – and while I don’t have time to demonstrate this, I think comics are uniquely well equipped to take advantage of this sort of digital-print synergy. In short, I think one reason why comics studies is important is because of the insight it offers into the question of the future of the book and the book of the future.

Reviews, post-FCBD edition

5-7-13

An eclectic and random assortment of stuff today. I’m posting reviews more frequently now because I’m trying to write them as soon as possible after reading the comics, while they’re still fresh in my memory.

TRUE SWAMP #1 (Alternative Comics, 2000) – B-. This is a weird and disturbing piece of work. It’s about the adventures of a talking frog, but beyond that I can’t say what exactly the point of it is. The disturbing part comes from one of the other major characters, who is a giant head with two legs and a tail; he reminds me of something out of Woodring. The panel structures in this comic are kind of weird; each page includes a lot of white space and there are a bunch of aspect-to-aspect transitions. I know that Jon Lewis is reasonably well respected in the alt-comics community, but this comic did not give me a strong desire to read more of his work.

NIGHT MUSIC #5 (Eclipse, 1985) – B+. This issue concludes PCR’s two-part adaptation of Debussy’s Pelleas et Mélisande, though it seems to be based more on the Maurice Maeterlinck play that inspired Debussy’s opera. This is an unusual instance in which the source material is more interesting than PCR’s take on it. Despite coming out of the Symbolist movement, the play does not contain a lot of magic or flashy special effects, just acting, and so the main sources of interest in PCR’s adaptation are his page layouts and the way he renders the characters’ movements and facial expressions. (I’d like to use a term like “graphic acting” to refer to the characters’ physical movements and their orientations within the panel; is there a standard critical term that refers to this?) PCR executes all this fairly well, and he succeeds in making me curious about the original play.

DR. CHAOS’ COMIC CORNUCOPIA #1 (forcewerks, 2004) – F. Unreadable.

BONGO COMICS FREE-FOR-ALL! (Bongo, 2006) – A-. All the short stories in this comic are hilarious, though I don’t think it works particularly well as an FCBD comic, because most of the stories are aimed at hardcore comics fans. For example, the last story is a parody of Power Man and Iron Fist starring Carl and Lenny. I think Bongo’s Simpsons comics are actually better than recent seasons of the TV show, not that that’s a difficult feat. Compared to the writers of the TV show, Bongo’s writers do a better job of imitating the tone of the good seasons of the Simpsons.

BANANA SUNDAY #3 (Oni, 2005) – A+. Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover are a fantastic creative team, and this is one of their earlier and more obscure works, from before they achieved major success with Bandette. Because this is issue 3, no effort is made to explain the premise of the series; it seems to be about a girl who has three pet talking monkeys for some reason. But maybe the fact that I don’t understand the plot makes it funnier. The dominant mood of this comic is happiness – I think Paul and Colleen genuinely like writing about happy people. And this is the case even though there is kind of a dark side to this story, because the protagonist is suffering from severe bullying. I hope to be able to find the other three issues of this series.

BULLET TO THE HEAD 2 (Dynamite, 2010) – B. This is a translation of a French comic with art by the New Zealander Colin Wilson, and it’s a perfect example of what Kim Thompson was talking about when he said that “more crap is what we need.” This is not a great comic – in fact, it’s a rather generic piece of crime fiction, a genre I do not enjoy – but it’s quite well crafted, with gorgeous artwork that reminds me a lot of Walt Simonson. In France, this is a purely commercial product with modest artistic intentions, but it’s able to reach a wide audience because of the exquisiteness of the art. Unfortunately this sort of commercial BD has never had much success in America. Its publishers (Casterman, in this case) seem to have little interest in entering the U.S. market in the way Japanese manga publishers have done. And so commercial BD tends to get translated by second-tier U.S. publishers like Dynamite or Archaia, who often don’t take very much care with it. We’ll see another example of that below.

NAUGHTY BITS #8 (Fantagraphics, 1993) – A+. “Hippie Bitch Gets an Abortion” may be Roberta Gregory’s masterpiece. It gruesomely depicts the unsanitary and frightening nature of abortion prior to Roe v. Wade, and Roberta even includes a brief segment where she speaks directly to the reader and describes how Midge’s abortion wasn’t even as bad as it could have been. Given the steady erosion of abortion rights in recent years, especially in red states, this comic is not just a glimpse into a more barbaric past but also a grim prediction of a possible future. Thankfully, because of Roberta’s hilarious art and the humorous tone of the writing, the comic is not as depressing as it could be. And the comic ends with a cathartic scene where a now-adult Midge beats up some abortion clinic protesters.

BLACK ORCHID #1 (DC, 1988) – A. This was one of Neil Gaiman’s earliest major works; I think the only one that predates it is Violent Cases. Compared to other work by the Gaiman/McKean team, it is a much more conventional and straightforward narrative. In the original Mayer/DeZuniga stories, Black Orchid was a deeply compelling character because of her air of mystery; she always appeared in disguise and vanished without a trace, and we never learned who she was beneath all the disguises, or where she came from. In this issue, Neil dissipates some of that aura of mystery by giving her a secret identity and an origin. He sort of compensates for this by exploring the character’s floral, vegetal aspects. After killing off the original Orchid, he creates a new version of the character who’s a human/plant hybrid. I suppose this territory was already covered in Swamp Thing, but Neil and Dave’s take on it is reasonably new. I don’t think this is one of Neil’s best works, but it’s certainly worth reading.

HEROBEAR AND THE KID #2 (Boom, 2013) – A-. My opinion of this comic changed completely when I realized it was a reprint of the original Herobear and the Kid miniseries; this is not stated anywhere in the comic itself. Initially, my problem with this comic was its pervasively nostalgic nature. It takes place in what seems like an idyllic ‘50s neighborhood, where there are no computers or cell phones to be seen, and bullying is treated as a standard feature of elementary school rather than a serious social problem. However, I think this sort of nostalgia was more acceptable in 2000 than in 2013. I’m also willing to give Herobear and the Kid a pass because it came out at a time when all-ages comics were almost dead. It won two consecutive Eisner Awards for Best Title for a Younger Audience, in 2002 and 2003, against no serious competition. Since then, there’s been an explosion of quality kids’ and YA comics, but in 2000, the kids’ comics genre was so impoverished that a comic like this one must have come as a serious breath of fresh air. And when I read it with that in mind, it becomes genuinely exciting – especially the last scene, which is a beautiful depiction of the pure joy of flight.

PREACHER #44 (DC, 1998) – A-. I like Preacher a lot less than Hellblazer because first, it too often sacrifices genuine emotion for shock value. Second, it’s an examination of a type of American frontier/cowboy myth that I believe is more harmful than admirable. One of the characters in this issue, a former Nazi spy, talks about “the myth of America: that simple, honest men, born of her great plains and woods and skies[,] have made a nation of her, and will prove worthy of her when the time is right.” I just can’t subscribe to this sort of national mythology because I hold it responsible for a lot of what’s currently wrong with our culture, such as rampant anti-intellectualism and lack of empathy for the less fortunate. This makes it difficult for me to connect with Preacher on an emotional level. It is certainly a well-crafted piece of work, though.

TYRANT #2 (Spider-Baby Grafix, 1994) – A. The biography of a dinosaur from birth to death seems like a boring subject, but Steve Bissette renders this story with such precision and attention to detail that it becomes fascinating, and he somehow manages to create a compelling narrative despite the lack of any sort of character development. For instance, the beginning of this issue depicts the massive changes that occur in the local environment when a tree falls – ants move out from under the tree, water rushes into the vacant space and brings frogs with it, and so on. It’s a fascinating examination of ecology, in the sense of the interdependence of everything and the ways in which small changes have large effects. The other material included in the issue is almost as fascinating; the letter column includes some hyper-detailed analyses of the accuracy of Steve’s version of the Cretaceous. I’m sorry that Steve was only able to publish four issues of this series.

ADVENTURE COMICS #402 (DC, 1971) – C+/B-. In the lead story, by Mike Sekowsky, a criminal tricks Supergirl into falling in love with him. It’s basically the same premise as New Teen Titans #16, except less credible because Sekowsky fails to make the reader understand what Supergirl sees in this creepy slimeball. However, he does a better job of making the reader sympathize with Supergirl, who is torn between her love (or lust) for this guy and her commitment to duty. The backup story, starring a girl named Tracey Thompson and her friend, starts out promisingly, passing the Bechdel test in the first panel. However, it goes downhill quickly when Tracey and her friend are attacked by some bikers and have to be saved by some dude. Tracey ends up not being the protagonist of her own story.

THE KILLER #5 (Archaia, 2006) – B+. This is another French comic that was a major success in its native country, but only achieved modest recognition in America, where it was published by a small independent outfit. Archaia’s founder, Mark Smylie, wrote a fascinating blog post specifically addressing the question of why BD has gotten such little traction in the American market (). As for the comic itself, it’s another example of what Kim Thompson calls “populist crap.” There is little to distinguish the story from that of any other crime comic, and I think that Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke are probably writing crime comics that are deeper and more complex, although I wouldn’t know because this genre doesn’t appeal to me. What makes this comic exciting, though, is Jacamon’s artwork, particularly his lush and vibrant coloring and his realistic but luscious female bodies. As I discussed below with regard to James Stokoe, this is the sort of artwork that’s only possible when you’re producing 56 pages a year rather than 22 pages a month. You can see how a product which has such a high level of craftsmanship, but appeals to a rather lowbrow level of taste, could be a major commercial hit. Unfortunately, American audiences have never developed a taste for this stuff and the big French publishers don’t seem to care much about the American market, and so translated comics like The Killer are difficult to find and have rather low production values compared to the original versions.

MIND MGMT #12 (Dark Horse, 2013) – B+. I’m not particularly interested in this comic as a comic, but I’m fascinated by its graphic design. Each page of Mind MGMT is formatted as a report from one of the operatives of the title organization. Each page is designed to look like an original art page, with notes in blue lettering around the edges (which are often relevant to the story) and a border indicating the live area. The back cover and the inside covers include additional story-relevant material which will not appear in the collected editions. I’m not going to explain now why this is significant, because it’s going to come up in my CSSC conference paper on Friday, but it fascinates me. I need to read more of this comic, even though I’m not highly captivated by the story.

Reviews, FCBD edition

5-4-13

GODZILLA: THE HALF-CENTURY WAR #3 (IDW, 2012) – A+. James Stokoe’s spectacular artwork in this issue initially reminded me of Geof Darrow, but as I read on, I realized it was more similar to European comics. This is no accident; in a 2007 CBR interview, Stokoe listed Moebius and Bilal as major influences. And his work has a level of polish and detail that you rarely if ever see in American comics, with their tighter deadlines. Franco-Belgian cartoonists typically produce far fewer pages per year than American cartoonists, but in exchange, much more time and effort goes into each page, and the results are gorgeous works of art. Stokoe’s work is at the same level. His artwork has an epic scope and an insane level of detail. The coloring gives his work a three-dimensional quality, but the expressivity of the lettering prevents it from being too close to photorealism. His composition on the level of individual panels is also amazing; the best example of that is the two-page spread with six monsters fighting each other at once. And on top of that, he has an impressive visual imagination – the eight kaiju all look distinctive, and they’re all terrifying in different ways. His art style is clearly too labor-intensive for a monthly comic, but I think the American comics industry may have reached a point where an artist like Stokoe can support himself without having to do a monthly comic. I look forward to reading the rest of this series, and I also want to read everything else he’s done.

ADVENTURES IN THE DC UNIVERSE #19 (DC, 1998) – B-. This Wonder Woman-Catwoman team-up is a thoroughly average comic, but at least it does an excellent job of introducing the characters for the benefit of new readers, and it tells a complete and satisfying story in 22 pages. Neither of those is as easy to do as it sounds. The villain is a giant cat god, but unfortunately the comic potential of that premise is mostly wasted. Imagine if Wonder Woman had rolled her lasso up into a ball in order to trick the villain into playing with it.

CAPTAIN MARVEL #3 (Marvel, 2012) – B. I think it took this series a little while to get off the ground, no pun intended. There are some funny moments here but it mostly falls flat, and the notion of an all-female commando unit during WWII is kind of hard to swallow. Also, I don’t like Dexter Soy’s art style at all. And this story seemed like it was over way too soon.

MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC #18 (IDW, 2014) – A+. Like most of Katie and Andy’s MLP stories, this is an extremely well-crafted piece of work which also expands on the source material in fascinating and innovative ways. This is why I’m using the MLP comics as my primary case study in a paper that I plan to write about transmedia storytelling in children’s comics. The mirror universe concept is obviously not new, but it seems particularly appropriate for this franchise, where most of the characters represent pure qualities (laughter, generosity, etc.), and are therefore easy to convert into their polar opposites. So for example, in the mirror universe, Flim and Flam are the elements of honesty, Trixie is the element of humility, etc. A couple other cool things about this story: Both here and in the Celestia issue of the micro-series, Katie and Andy have added a lot of depth to Celestia’s character. In the cartoon (at least the first three seasons), she often seems like an omnipotent, invincible god, but this story depicts her as flawed and vulnerable. And I love the implication that Pinkie Pie has the ability to pull things out of hammerspace.

CHEW #41 (Image, 2014) – A+. This is certainly the happiest issue of Chew in a long time, possibly ever. Given that Layman and Guillory seem to delight in making Tony Chu suffer, it’s nice of them to let him enjoy a brief moment of wedded bliss with Amelia. There’s a ton of other awesome stuff in this issue, including the two-page splash of Poyo fighting Unisaurus Rex, and Agent Breadman – I can’t tell whether he’s an actual gingerbread man or whether he’s just drawn that way.

FREE COMIC BOOK DAY 2014 (ROCKET RACCOON) (Marvel, 2014) – A-. Marvel obviously knows that Rocket Raccoon is an incredibly appealing character and they’re marketing the hell out of him. In the July solicitations, it says “let’s be real, [Rocket Raccoon] is the only Guardian of the Galaxy you actually care about”, and I think they almost want you to agree with that. Rocket is the latest in a long line of characters who Marvel has successfully turned from bit players into superstars – previous examples include Deadpool, Loki and Captain Marvel. (DC, on the other hand, has a much greater repertoire of characters, but seems unable to market any of them successfully except Batman.) This particular story is not nearly as well-crafted as the Abnett and Lanning Guardians of the Galaxy stories that revived the character, but the fact that it’s a Rocket Raccoon story makes up for its slight clumsiness. Princess Lynx is a cool new character. The backup story, with Spider-Man, Nova, and White Tiger, is a silly piece of filler; the only thing I liked about it is the name “Subservians.”

LUMBERJANES #1 (Boom!, 2014) – A+. This is exactly the sort of thing that I’m predisposed to like, so it’s no surprise that I love it. This series reminds me of MLP and Rat Queens in that it features a diverse ensemble cast of female protagonists who often take on traditionally male roles. In such a short comic, we don’t have much of a chance to get to know the protagonists, but Brooke Allen’s storytelling is so strong that she’s able to effectively develop their characters through visual means, allowing us to distinguish between them even before they’ve had a lot of dialogue. The premise of this comic is also kind of fascinating; I don’t know what’s up with the three-eyed foxes, or why the camp used to be called “Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s” and is now a camp for “Hardcore Lady Types,” but I’m excited to find out. Oh, and I love the Lumberjanes pledge and I even like the oath “what the junk”. As a final point, it wasn’t until after I finished this comic that I realized it had no male characters at all. I think Lumberjanes #1 might be the only one of the nearly 14,000 comic books in my collection that has no men in it. And I didn’t even notice at first, because the lack of male characters is not emphasized at all – it just so happens that this comic takes place at a summer camp for girls, so the lack of males is entirely natural. I think this is kind of cool.

FREE COMIC BOOK DAY 2014: ALL AGES (Dark Horse, 2014) – A-. Gene Luen Yang and Faith Erin Hicks are two of the best creators of YA comics in North America, and Avatar is one of my biggest current fandoms. So the first story in this issue is kind of a dream come true, even if it’s just ten pages. Faith’s artwork is tastefully understated, but she captures the characters of Sokka and Suki perfectly. Gene’s story is interesting because it can be read on two entirely different levels. The seashell store, with its sexist employees, is an obvious parody of a comic book store, and when Seashell-san calls Giya a “fake collector,” we’re supposed to read that as “fake geek girl.” But this scene also makes perfect sense in the context of the story; a younger reader who is not familiar with recent debates over sexism in comics culture can still understand this story at face value.
Unfortunately the two other stories in this issue were much worse. The Itty Bitty Hellboy story is just silly, and the Juice Squeezers story made little sense to me since I hadn’t heard of this series before. I don’t understand why the characters have silly names like Morko and Stampo, or where the giant insects came from. If the purpose of an FCBD comic is to provide a gentle introduction to an existing comic book series, then this story failed to do that.

WALT DISNEY’S UNCLE SCROOGE AND DONALD DUCK: “A MATTER OF SOME GRAVITY” (Fantagraphics, 2014) – A+. The title story in this comic was nominated for an Eisner in 1998, but it was only ever printed in English once before – in Uncle Scrooge #310, which had a tiny print run – and so I’m grateful that Fantagraphics has brought it back into print. Because this is a Don Rosa story I’ve never read before, it deserves an A+ on general principle. But even by Don Rosa’s standards, this story is quite innovative. The premise of the story is that Magica de Spell curses Donald and Scrooge by shifting their personal gravity by 90 degrees. On pages 3 through 11, the page layout mimics the change in Donald and Scrooge’s gravity. On each of these pages, the panels on the bottom tier are tilted 90 degrees to the right, so that the left edge of each panel is the ground, and the bottom edge is the direction in which Donald and Scrooge are falling. This is much harder to describe than to show, but it’s a perfect technique for illustrating the change in gravity. It also suggests that the comics panel is a sort of microcosm of the world. Comics panels are typically oriented with the sky at the top and the ground at the bottom, so that gravity flows in the same direction in a comics panel as it does in the real world. But in this story, the direction of gravity changes, and the orientation of the panels changes to match. Something similar happens later in the story, when Magica casts another spell that causes gravity to be reversed by 180 degrees, and as a result, some of the panels are upside down. It’s a bit disappointing, though, that throughout the story, all the text reads from right to left, regardless of the gravity.
This issue also includes “The Sign of the Triple Distelfink,” another Rosa story I hadn’t read. This story displays Rosa’s annoying tendency to explain things that didn’t really need an explanation (Gladstone’s superhuman luck, in this case), but at least it’s funny, and it’s fun to see the origin of Donald and Gladstone’s rivalry.

USAGI YOJIMBO #133 (Dark Horse, 2010) – A. I missed this when it came out, but picked it up today because Oxford Comics was having a half-off sale on back issues. This issue is part two of ”Taiko,” so I felt it was appropriate to listen to taiko music while reading it – as a complete tangent, the other day I walked past a studio where a taiko club was practicing, and that music is really cool and fun to watch, but extremely loud. I’d like to see an actual taiko performance live someday. Anyway. This issue is a sad but satisfying conclusion to a story whose first half I read four years ago. The conclusion is kind of predictable, as is sometimes the case with Stan’s stories, but Stan executes it beautifully. The climactic sequence of the story has an impressive rhythm to it, with the constant intercutting between drumming, rain, and fighting. I’m curious about the claim that taiko drumming is supposed to draw the attention of the thunder god Raijin – after a cursory Google search I couldn’t find any sources that explicitly support this. Maybe the source for this is given in the endnotes to #132.

THE SANDWALK ADVENTURES #4 (Active Images, 2002) – A-. I love Jay Hosler’s graphic novel about bees, Clan Apis, but this is the only other work of his I’ve read. Both this issue and Clan Apis are prototypical examples of educational comics, because they explain complicated concepts, but in a humorous and lively way, almost concealing the fact that the purpose of the comic is to teach the reader something. This comic is told from the viewpoint of two follicle mites living on Charles Darwin’s head, which is as bizarre as it sounds, but it effectively gets across the nature of artificial selection and the fact that evolution happens on the level of populations rather than individuals. It’s too bad that Jay Hosler doesn’t seem to have published anything since 2008 – I guess he’s too busy with his day job as a biology professor. I think there’s a bigger market for his work now than there was when he started doing it. His artwork is heavily influenced by Jeff Smith, especially the backgrounds, but he shows some individual style in the way he draws people and insects.

FRENCH ICE #1 (Renegade, 1987) – B+/A-. This comic is a collection of several of Jean-Marc Lelong’s Carmen Cru stories from Fluide Glacial. The running joke in these stories is that Carmen Cru is a hideous old curmudgeon who uses her age as an excuse to impose her will on everyone she meets. For example, in one of the stories a workman digs a trench in front of her house, and she forces him to carry her across the trench and back a total of 22 times (another character hears this story and mistakenly thinks they had sex 22 times). The humor in these stories mostly seems to revolve around Carmen Cru and her demented strength of personality. The other main appeal of these comics is Lelong’s artwork; his black-and-white draftsmanship is obsessively detailed, almost to the point where it detracts from the storytelling, and I think it was designed to be viewed at album size rather than comic book size. This comic is somewhat difficult to understand both because the translation is kind of clumsy, and because this sort of humor is unfamiliar to American audiences. As far as I can tell, Lelong is one of a group of cartoonists whose main influence was Gotlib and whose work appeared in the magazine Gotlib founded, Fluide Glacial. Other cartoonists in this group include Edika, Goossens and Binet. Most of these names are completely unknown to American readers because their work has never been translated, and neither has the work of Gotlib himself – I think he may be the most important cartoonist whose work is completely unavailable in English. Anyway, without knowledge of that artistic tradition, it’s hard to see where Lelong is coming from.