First reviews of 2015

SUPER FRIENDS #8 (DC, 2008) – C. A thoroughly average and forgettable story in which the Justice League fights Scarecrow. Only redeemed by some cute scenes involving trick-or-treaters dressed as the Leaguers. Sholly Fisch is a fun writer but his stories lack the sophistication of things like Paul Tobin’s Marvel Adventures work, and are only appropriate for the youngest readers.

SECRET ORIGINS #37 (DC, 1989) – B+. At dinner with Aaron King and Diana Green, Aaron gave this to me, along with two other Legion comics that I already had, so I gave them to Diana. I was excited to read this because it’s a Legion story I didn’t even know existed: the secret origin of the Legion of Substitute Heroes. Like every other Subs story, it’s very silly but in an intelligent way. I never thought much of Ty Templeton as a writer, but he has an impressive sense of humor. Maybe my favorite bit is Estimate Lad, a rejected applicant who can accurately calculate the number of anything. The Dr. Light backup story is much less interesting. The main point of this story is that Dr. Light is pathetic and useless, which I knew already.

HELLBOY: BUSTER OAKLEY GETS HIS WISH #1 (Dark Horse, 2011) – B-. This one-shot is a fairly silly story about cow-abducting aliens, but the deliberate stupidity of the story is in stark contrast to the grim gloominess of Kevin Nowlan’s art, and the disparity between the tone of the story and the tone of the artwork is pretty cool. Kevin Nowlan is a fairly similar artist to Mignola and their styles work well together. Still, I usually feel that Hellboy stories don’t live up to their potential, and this issue is no exception.

UNCLE SCROOGE #290 (Gladstone/Marvel, 1990) – A-. This was one of the two issues of Life & Times that I was missing. At this point I only need #292, which is the one where Scrooge strikes it rich, and therefore the key turning point in the story. If anyone is actually reading this and has a spare copy of that issue, I’d be happy to trade a bunch of other stuff for it. Anyway, it hardly needs to be said that this story is a classic, full of witty dialogue, beautiful artwork, and sight gags. Two major problems, though. Number one, this issue takes place in South Africa and is concerned with Scrooge’s first encounter with Flintheart Glomgold (one of the most brilliantly named characters in comics history). This is a period of his life that Barks rarely mentioned, so there are almost no Barksian references in the story. And number two, this comic book takes place in Africa, so it seems odd that there are no African people in the story! (Or black anthropomorphic animals, I guess.) It’s all animals and white settlers, except for one line of dialogue where Glomgold falsely claims to have been abducted by warriors with spears. Obviously this is a Disney comic, so Rosa can hardly be blamed for not mentioning apartheid or the Zulu wars or whatever, but he could have at least acknowledged that there were ethnically African people living in Africa in 1887. So this story left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

YOUNG JUSTICE #40 (DC, 2002) – B/B-. Like Incredible Hulk #435, this issue is written entirely in verse and is a parody of a classic poem, which in this case is “The Night Before Christmas.” The plot here is that Santa Claus is killed saving the earth from an invading Khund, and Young Justice has to finish his job. The visual gimmick is that the story is narrated entirely in text boxes at the top of the page, and as the issue goes on, the text boxes get bigger and bigger until they crush the characters. I have several issues with this concept. First, the issue is just one big running joke which leaves no room for characterization, and characterization is one of the major strengths of this title. And number two, the lettering in this issue is hideous. The font is ugly and the line breaks are misplaced, leaving all kinds of ugly blank space. And this is a serious problem considering that literally half of this comic consists of text boxes.

SAVAGE DRAGON #199 (Image, 2014) – A. Walt Simonson’s influence on Erik Larsen has rarely been more evident than in this issue, which consists entirely of two-page splashes, in an apparent attempt to outdo Thor #380. As Erik says on the letters page, he’s wanted to do this for a while, but the trouble was coming up with an appropriate subject. I think he succeeded. This issue, much like Thor #380, is a giant epic fight scene, in which an army of superheroes battles a horde of subterranean demons. This is a story that benefits from a gigantic canvas. There’s even a surprising amount of characterization here, since the giant pages allow for a lot of dialogue boxes. Overall this is one of the better recent issues of Savage Dragon, and it’s a story worthy of Uncle Walt.

SENSATION COMICS FEATURING WONDER WOMAN #3 (DC, 2014) – B. This is an uneven package. The first story, by Sean E. Williams and Marguerite Sauvage, is just awful because it’s an insincere attempt at a progressive, feminist story. It includes a bunch of standard feminist tropes (income inequality, sexual harassment, etc.), but I never get the sense that Williams actually believes in the feminist message of this story; I feel that he’s just going through the motions of writing a feminist comic. Possibly the reason I feel this way is that the dialogue is extremely wooden. Marguerite Sauvage’s art on this story is excellent, though. The second story, by Ollie Masters and Amy Mebberson, is kind of silly, but at least it’s better than the first story. It’s weird seeing Amy Mebberson drawing people instead of ponies. The real attraction of this issue is the third story, by Gilbert Hernandez. I already reviewed the second half of this two-parter, but the first half is equally good. There is a slightly parodistic and silly tone to this story, as with much of Beto’s recent work, but he draws a fantastic Wonder Woman and Supergirl and he writes brilliant dialogue. And I think his work is even more genuinely feminist than Williams, even though, or perhaps because, it’s more subtle about its feminist intentions. I wish DC would hire him to expand this story into a miniseries or a graphic novel, because he’s capable of producing the best Wonder Woman comic ever.

DETECTIVE COMICS #833 (DC, 2007) – B+/A-. Given that this is a Paul Dini story guest-starring Zatanna, I found it a little disappointing, although the best scene from this issue is all over the Internet and I’ve already seen it before. I’m referring to the flashback sequence where Bruce and Zatanna meet as children, and Zatanna plays a magic trick on Bruce without saying a word. It’s an adorable and touching scene, and this issue deserves an A- just on the basis of those two pages. The rest of the issue isn’t at the same level, though it is interesting to see how Bruce and Zatanna’s relationship has evolved due to the effects of age and Zatanna’s actions during Identity Crisis (I would rather pretend that that comic doesn’t exist, but it is significant to the characterization in this issue).

FANTASTIC FOUR #334 (Marvel, 1989) – B+/A-. Speaking of Walt Simonson, he was probably the fifth best FF writer after Lee, Byrne and Hickman – I realize that sounds kind of unimpressive, but he was a very good FF writer. This is the first issue he wrote, though it’s drawn by Rich Buckler. This issue is an Acts of Vengeance crossover, so the plot involves a series of invasions of the Baxter Building by villains the FF have never seen before. It’s kind of a funny commentary on how each superhero or super-team has its own exclusive set of villains. But most of the issue is devoted to character interaction, which makes it a lot of fun. There’s also a short cameo appearance by Thor, and it’s always nice to see Thor drawn by Simonson. Too bad about the Buckler artwork though.

GOD HATES ASTRONAUTS #1 (Image, 2014) – B+. This series, written and drawn by Ryan Browne, is like Chew, only more so. It’s full of the most absurd gross-out humor imaginable. It makes no attempt at logic or plausibility; the plot is dictated entirely by the demands of humor and awesomeness. This series is definitely a guilty pleasure – it also doesn’t make any attempt at serious artistry, although Browne’s humor is slightly more intelligent than it seems. For me it’s a guilty pleasure in the sense that I feel guilty for not getting more pleasure out of it than I did. I don’t think this is the sort of humor that appeals to me. I do feel a certain sense of investment in what happens to Browne’s bizarre cast of characters, though, and I read the next four issues of this series very quickly after reading this one, so I guess I’m enjoying it.

LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES #18 (DC, 1991) – B-. This is an unusually hopeful story by v4 standards. The plot is that the Dark Circle tries to take over the planet Orando, but Mon-El and Shadow Lass stop them, and everything turns out okay afterwards. This is a much happier resolution than the Giffen/Bierbaum Legion usually offers, and it seems somehow too happy. Also, Mon-El is so powerful that there’s really not much suspense here; he essentially defeats the Dark Circle by brute force, and they can’t do anything to stop him. It’s nice seeing Mon and Shady again, though, as well as Jeckie, who makes one of her few v4 appearances in this issue.

SNARKED #1 (Boom!, 2011) – A+. When I was placing my latest order, I was surprised to discover that I was missing issues 1 and 2 of this series, because I thought I’d read them already. In fact I only read issues 0 and 3, but the storyline of the following issues made perfect sense to me anyway, because Roger Langridge’s storytelling is so clear. Anyway, this issue is a perfect introduction to the best children’s comic book of the decade. Roger Langridge is one of the most gifted storytellers in comics today; he’s as good as Don Rosa or Jeff Smith. Just to select one of the many wonderful things about this issue, when he introduces us to the three corrupt advisors who are trying to steal the throne, he effectively convinces us in just one page that they’re horrible people who don’t have Princess Scarlett’s best interests at heart.

TRANSFORMERS: MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE #33 (IDW, 2014) – B+. I think my difficulty understanding the plot of this series is entirely due to the fact that I started reading it about two years in. I don’t think the plot is all that confusing really. However, the real issue I have with this series is that I can’t tell any of the characters apart, either by their appearance or by their speech patterns. Besides that, though, James Roberts’s dialogue in this issue is as witty as ever, and the plot is exciting. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a comic that made more intelligent use of quantum mechanics.

GOD HATES ASTRONAUTS #2 (Image, 2014) – B+. This is one of thos series where individual issues are difficult to review because they’re all basically the same. This issue has the same brand of outrageously bizarre humor as issue 1, reviewed above. One notable thing about this issue is that it contains a parody Hostess Fruit Pie ad, which begins an ongoing story that’s continued in other similar ads in later issues.

CHEW #44 (Image, 2014) – B+/A-. Perhaps the most brutal issue yet. In this issue, most of the main characters, besides Tony and Amelia, attempt to ambush the Vampire in his castle. They fail miserably due to the unexpected absence of Poyo, and they all get either seriously injured or killed. Given the usually lighthearted tone of this series, this sort of thing is painful to read. There are a lot of humorous moments in this issue, of course, and I especially like the opening sequence with Mantou Tang, which includes a bunch of subtle Chinese food puns. For example, the battlefield of “Gongboa Jiding” appears to be an error for Gongbao Jiding, i.e. Kung Pao chicken. Zhandou Wei is more difficult to interpret, but apparently Zhandou means “fighting bean” and there’s a popular Chinese song with that title.

TERRIBLE LIZARD #2 (Oni, 2014) – B. This is not currently one of the top titles on the market, but it’s fun; I mean, how can I resist a comic book about a teenage girl with a pet dinosaur? This series is superficially similar to Super Dinosaur, but Jess’s relationship with Wrex is completely different from Derek’s relationship with SD. Instead of a superpowered best friend, Wrex is basically an enormous dog, which is why this comic is so cute. But there’s also a constant sense of tension in this issue, because the adults are afraid of the dinosaur and seem determined to kill it. I doubt this comic is going to win any Eisners, but I look forward to reading more of it.

CHEW #45 (Image, 2014) – B+. This issue continues the relentlessly grim tone from last issue, although again, there are all kinds of humorous moments (e.g. the Kool-Aid Man murder case). As of this issue, we don’t know whether any of the casualties from last issue are going to survive; Applebee seems unlikely to, although John Layman claimed in an interview that he was going to be alive at the end of the series. And the issue ends with Savoy killing Poyo for no apparent reason. I’m sorry that there are only about 15 issues of this series left now.

LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES #19 (DC, 1991) – B+. This is one of the bleakest Legion comics ever. It deals with the aftermath of the destruction of the moon in Adventures of Superman #478. This leads to massive devastation on Earth, as well as the execution of a Dominator plot to blow up all of Earth’s powerspheres. Maybe the most heartbreaking part here is the heroic death of Circadia Senius, who remains at his post so that he can replace the moon with an orbiter, and gets vaporized by a meteor impact as a result. This is all very emotionally affecting, but it gives me a powerful sense of despair, because the whole point of the Legion is that they’re supposed to stop this kind of thing from happening. And I feel like this story resorts to excessive cruelty in order to tug on the reader’s heartstrings. I mean, did they need to kill off an adorable and harmless character like Circadia Senius? Meanwhile, the subplot of this issue is just as depressing. Jo Nah time-travels to ancient Egypt where he encounters a woman who looks just like Tinya, and they fall in love and she gets pregnant, but it turns out she’s not real, it’s just a trick by a Lord of Chaos. Hadn’t Jo suffered enough at this point as a result of Tinya’s death? As affecting as this issue was, I think I’d rather read some happier Legion stories.

THE SHADE #1 (DC, 1997) – B. This Starman spinoff is set in the early Victorian period and features some beautiful and historically accurate artwork by Gene Ha. The story is less interesting than the artwork, though. It’s about the Shade’s first encounter with a family of aristocratic murderers, who become his lifelong enemies; they’re kind of the opposite of the O’Dare family. This story is okay, but it doesn’t add very much to our knowledge of the Starman universe.

VILLAINS UNITED #1 (DC, 2005) – B+. This is mostly setup for future issues, but it’s an effective introduction to the new Secret Six. I think that this series and its sequels are Gail’s best work, with the possible exception of Wonder Woman.

LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES #20 (DC, 1991) – B+. Not quite as bleak or depressing as the last issue. The title of this issue is “Venado Bay” and it includes a flashback to the battle of that name, but that’s only a small part of the issue, which is sort of a “day in the life” story. (Incidentally, the Venado Bay flashback is kind of odd because it shows Cosmic Boy as a common soldier; given his experience leading the Legion, you would think they would have made him an officer.) This issue gives us glimpses of most of the main cast and includes a couple heartwarming moments, including a cute scene between Vi and Ayla, and the announcement of the birth of Garth and Imra’s second set of twins.

ADVENTURE COMICS #335 (DC, 1965) – A-. In a way, this issue has a completely different tone from v4. At the same time, the Bierbaums were mostly influenced by this run of Legion stories, not by Levitz’s Legion, and one of the heartbreaking things about the Bierbaums’ Legion is the way they contrast the optimistic, lighthearted tone of the ‘60s Legion with the bleakness of the post-Five Year Gap universe. Anyway, I can’t give this issue an A+ because it’s worse than the next couple years of Legion comics, but it’s still fun. This issue introduces Starfinger, who, despite his ridiculous appearance, is a nasty piece of work. It includes no real characterization – that would come later when Shooter took over as writer – but this is almost made up for by the fact that it stars Matter-Eater Lad. Unfortunately this issue also includes a reprinted Superboy story which is just awful.

GOOD GIRLS #1 (Fantagraphics, 1987) – A-. Carol Lay is an artist I’m not familiar with, and this comic is a good introduction to her excellent and bizarre work, which combines a sort of ‘50s sensibility with absurd subject matter. Two of the three stories in this issue are about Ms. Lonelyhearts, an advice columnist who keeps getting into trouble by getting personally involved with the people who write to her. These stories are funny, but a bit confusing; like, the second Ms. Lonelyhearts story implies that her colleagues are playing a prank on her, but I’m not clear on what the prank is. The third and best story is sort of a cross between Tarzan and a ‘50s romance comic; it’s about Irene van der Kamp, an heiress who’s raised by an African tribe that practices “face-shaping,” and ends up with a hideously bizarre appearance. This story is visually compelling because of Irene’s scarred, duck-shaped face, but it’s also very bleak; the plot is that Irene falls in love with a blind lawyer (probably based on Matt Murdock) who she thinks is the only man who can love her, but when he feels her face, he abandons her. So this story is a (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) satire of Western cultural biases about beauty. I want to read more of this comic.

GOD HATES ASTRONAUTS #3 (Image, 2014) – B+. More of the same. People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like, as Abraham Lincoln is falsely reported to have said.

SIX-GUN GORILLA #4 (Boom!, 2013) – A-. This issue can’t be reviewed other than in the context of the entire series, so I’ll talk more about it below.

STARMAN #68 (DC, 2000) – B+. This installment of Grand Guignol contains two flashback stories, one about the history of Opal, the other about the Shade’s encounter with the Holmes-esque detective Hamilton Drew. Both stories effectively flesh out the world of Opal City, but are not particularly exciting. Some of the lettering in this issue is very difficult to read.

SIX-GUN GORILLA #5 and #6 (Boom!, 2013) – A. These issues offer a very satisfying resolution to the miniseries, which is appropriate since it turns out that the whole miniseries is about storytelling and about the desire for satisfactory conclusions. I’m just working this out as I write, but I think the point here is that the government and the rebels were deliberately keeping the war going because it satisfied people’s desire for narrative absorption. However, the war was “the kind of story that never… evolves and never… ends” – it kept going on forever but never went anywhere. And the war ends when the protagonist realizes that people want not only an exciting story, but also a story that goes somewhere and has a satisfying conclusion. I guess there’s an implicit commentary here on the never-ending narratives of superhero comics. So this comic is not just an exciting romp, it also has a deeper meaning. I enjoyed it very much.

JUDGE DREDD: MEGA-CITY TWO #3 (IDW, 2014) – A-. I don’t really care about the story here; the real attraction is Ulises Farinas’s spectacular artwork. Ulises has gained a lot of notoriety through his outspoken social media posts, and this has maybe tended to make people forget what a brilliant artist he is. His work is a sort of cross between Brandon Graham and Geof Darrow (who he namechecks at one point); it has both an obsessive level of detail and an anarchic, graffiti-like sensibility. Also, his use of color is gorgeous. He’s a rising superstar and he deserves to be working on higher-profile projects than this miniseries, which seems to have fallen under people’s radar.

SILVER SURFER #7 (Marvel, 2014) – A+. This issue deserves a slightly lower grade but I’m elevating it to an A+ because of the guest appearance by the Ding-A-Ling Family, perhaps the most bizarre characters to ever appear in a Hostess ad. This scene is the perfect example of this series’s deadpan style of humor; the Surfer and Dawn constantly encounter weird and inexplicable phenomena, but they act as if these phenomena are normal. Besides that, perhaps the best thing about this issue is the revelation that Toomie is sentient and can “talk” via reflections on its surface. I’m not convinced by the ending, though; I haven’t really seen any signs of romantic interest between Surfy and Dawn, and I prefer to believe that when Dawn asks if they’re going out, she’s either saying that with tongue in cheek, or she’s asking because she genuinely isn’t sure. As a final note, people have complained that this comic is overly derivative of Doctor Who, but this doesn’t bother me; I’m not very familiar with Doctor Who and I wouldn’t have noticed the similarity if it hadn’t been pointed out to me.

IMAGINE AGENTS #2 (Boom!, 2013) – B-. This comic really wasn’t bad or anything, I just read it when I was too tired to properly appreciate it. I still think it has an amazing premise, although I’m not convinced that Bachan is the right artist for it. This comic might have been more enjoyable if it was drawn by an artist who specialized in depicting bizarre imaginary phenomena, e.g. Skottie Young.

GOD HATES ASTRONAUTS #4 (Image, 2014) – B+. More of the same.

THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL #1 (Marvel, 2015) – A+. This is probably my favorite single comic book since Lumberjanes #5. Every panel and every line of dialogue in this issue is a sheer delight. I can’t even identify particularly brilliant panels or lines of dialogue because they’re all brilliant, although it seems like the thing in this issue that’s resonated with people the most is the “conspicuously large and conspicuously awesome butt” line. My personal favorite is either the line about Tippy Toe’s family living alone in trees, or the panel with Tippy Toe clinging to Doreen’s face. I also love the little annotations below the panels; they’re the print equivalent of the alt text in webcomics (which is a phenomenon I probably need to write about somewhere). In a more general sense, this issue is important because it establishes Squirrel Girl as more than just a running joke. With Dan Slott’s version of the character, the running joke was that she was consistently able to beat the most powerful villains even though her powers were ridiculously weak. But this issue reminds us that her powers are not weak – she has the “speed and strength of the most savage beasts imaginable” – and she’s also a relentlessly upbeat and funny character and a good role model. I honestly think that this series is going to turn her into a major Marvel character, and that it’s going to be one of Marvel’s best comics, comparable in quality to Ms. Marvel. As a final point, some people on CBR criticized Erica Henderson’s artwork as not appropriate to a superhero comic; I think this speaks to the narrowness of these people’s tastes, because her artwork is amazing.

ODY-C #2 (Image, 2015) – A. This is a strong follow-up to Image’s best debut issue of 2014. There’s nothing here that’s as impressive as the eight-page foldout from #1, but Matt Fraction’s storytelling and Christian Ward’s artwork continue to be amazing. The Lotus-Eaters is one of the less exciting episodes of the Odyssey; however, Matt and Christian find a fairly effective approach to it, and I like how they connect it to the overarching mythology of the world. I hate to say it, though, but the one thing in this comic that stands out to me the most is the first page, because I’m disturbed by the thing between Zeus’s legs; I can’t tell if it’s a penis or what.

USAGI YOJIMBO: SENSO #6 (Dark Horse, 2015) – A-. In general I haven’t enjoyed this story as much as previous Usagi epics. This issue is a satisfying but somewhat predictable conclusion – there’s an epic battle between the last tripod and Usagi Gundam, and then Usagi dies heroically. Usagi’s death is tragic but not really surprising. The only logical way for his story to end is with a heroic sacrifice, and he isn’t going to reveal the secret of Jotaro’s parentage unless he’s on his deathbed. I did like the unexpected epilogue, though, where it reveals that the entire miniseries is a story told by Space Usagi. And it’s cute that Space Usagi has achieved wedded bliss and legitimate parenthood with Mariko, so his story is going to have a happier ending than his ancestor’s.

RAT QUEENS SPECIAL #1 (Image, 2015) – B-. While it’s nice to see this series again after a long hiatus, this issue still doesn’t really satisfy my desire for more Rat Queens. Braga is an interesting character, especially because she’s a rare positive portrayal of either an orc or a transgender character, but I felt this story was lacking in substance – there just wasn’t enough of a narrative here. Tess Fowler’s artwork is interestingly different from the work of the previous artist, who I will leave unmentioned, but I wish her backgrounds were more detailed. And I still really miss the Rat Queens, especially Betty. At this point it’s been more than half a year since the last issue that featured all four of the main characters, and I’m getting impatient.

ABIGAIL AND THE SNOWMAN #1 (Image, 2015) – A. This is the latest major work by Roger Langridge, who is, other than Stan Sakai and Sergio Aragones, the best writer/artist currently working in American comic books. This comic doesn’t immediately grab me the way Snarked! did, but it has an adorable premise. It’s based on the trope of creatures that can only be seen by children, which appears everywhere from Goethe’s “Der Erlkönig” to Dragon Quest V to Monsters, Inc. But it looks like Langridge is going to take this trope seriously and explore its implications – like, the villains in this issue (a pair of Thompson-and-Thomson-esque bunglers) have glasses that allow them to see invisible creatures. As I said, I’m not as much in love with this as with Snarked!, but it’ll be interesting to see where it’s going.

CAPTAIN MARVEL #11 (Marvel, 2015) – B+. I’m writing this about two weeks after reading this comic, and I had some difficulty remembering what happened in this issue. In general, this was a funny and cute comic, though I didn’t quite understand initially what was going on with the Santa dude. I’m disappointed that Lieutenant Trouble appears on the cover but not in the issue; I almost get the impression that this cover was designed for a different story. David Lopez is a seriously underrated artist.

ASTRO CITY #19 (DC, 2015) – A+. This is still the best Green Arrow/Black Canary story in twenty years, but Quarrel is emerging as a distinctly different character from Black Canary. Her impoverished rural background and her combative attitude make her unique. Kurt has said before that Quarrel is his favorite Astro City character, and I can see why; she’s honestly pretty awesome, and I wish we’d gotten to see more of her already. (Crackerjack, by contrast, is like Hawkeye or Green Arrow, only much more so.) Overall this was a very satisfying issue.

BOOM BOX 2014 MIX TAPE (Boom!, 2014) – B. I bought this mostly because of the Lumberjanes story, which is too short, though absolutely adorable. The other material in this magazine-sized comic is a mixed bag. My favorite is the Help Us! Great Warrior story, which makes me excited for that ongoing series, but some of the other stuff here, particularly the Munchkin story, is much less interesting. I don’t know if this was worth it even at a discount from the $9.99 cover price.

SAVAGE DRAGON #201 (Image, 2015) – B+. This issue is mostly focused on the love hexagon between Malcolm, Maxine, Angel, Frank, Tierra and Daredevil. Erik’s depiction of teenage relationships is not especially deep or realistic, but then neither is anything else in this comic, and the relationship drama is at least entertaining. Erik has been on kind of a roll lately, although I really wish he would he would stop publishing those awful Vanguard backup stories.

THOR #3 (Marvel, 2015) – B-. This series is really no better than a typical Marvel superhero comic, and the hook that drew me into it – the female Thor – is proving to be insufficient to retain my interest. After three issues there is still no sign that the the identity of the new Thor is going to be revealed anytime soon, and I’m losing my patience with the lack of a resolution to this mystery. I’m almost ready to give up on this series.

LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES #277 (DC, 1981) – C+. This was part of an overly long and drawn-out story in which Ultra Boy “died” and was replaced by Reflecto. With this issue Roy Thomas took over from Gerry Conway as the dialogue writer, but this did not lead to a significant improvement in the quality of the writing. The plot is still excessively bland and boring, and the writers don’t do enough to distinguish the characters from each other. Also, Jimmy Janes is a thoroughly forgettable artist; the George Pérez cover is far more attractive than the interior art. At least this is a Legion comic, though.

LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES #14 (DC, 1991) – A-. The V4 Legion tended to be excessively grim and depressing, but Giffen and the Bierbaums also understood the fundamental humor and silliness of the premise, and occasionally they did stories like this one, in which Matter-Eater Lad battles Evillo. This story is essentially a series of big jokes, but it also depicts Tenzil as a sort of Plastic Man character, a man who’s himself serious and stiff-upper-lipped even though weird stuff tends to happen around him. The best line in the issue is “I’m a Legionnaire. When trouble strikes, we put on costumes.”

SILVER SURFER #8 (Marvel, 2015) – B+/A-. Another delightful issue, though also a depressing one. However, my major… uh, issue with this issue is Dawn’s surprise at learning that the Surfer was the herald of Galactus. I mean, is that not public knowledge? Though honestly, this series is so light-hearted that I’d forgotten it myself. But I guess this issue does raise the question of to what extent Norrin is personally culpable for Galactus’s actions. And this is a question Marvel comics tend to dance around. In the ‘80s, John Byrne even tried to justify Galactus, and in my opinion he completely failed. So it will be interesting if this series tries to directly confront the question of Norrin’s responsibility for genocide.

SUICIDE SQUAD #65 (DC, 1992) – B+. This is the next to last issue, though it’s hard to tell other than by reading the letters page. The most resonant moment in this issue is when Amanda says she wants to defeat Guedhe, a South American dictator, because she started the Squad with idealistic goals, though she’s never come close to fulfilling those goals. Otherwise this is neither better nor worse than a typical Suicide Squad issue.

RAGNAROK #2 (IDW, 2014) – B+. I flipped to the end of this comic and saw that the dark elf protagonist from #1 gets killed, and that dampened my enthusiasm for reading it, because I liked that character a lot. However, I suppose her death is reasonably justifiable in terms of the narrative, and it’s handled fairly tastefully; there is no suggestion of fringing. I really started to get into this comic with Thor’s line “I like courage”; I don’t know why this line resonated with me so much, but it somehow reads like a line Snorri Sturluson could have written, and it helped me start to see the links between this comic and Simonson’s Thor. The artwork in this issue, of course, is fantastic.

RAGNAROK #3 (IDW, 2014) – A-. This issue makes me excited about the series again. It’s clearly based on the original mythological Thor – his children Magni, Modi and Thrud are mentioned, for example – and it seems like an accurate representation of the original Eddaic source material in the same way as Simonson’s Thor was. And again, the artwork is spectacular.

YUMMY FUR #17 (Vortex, 1989) – B+. The main story in this issue is a chapter of Ed the Happy Clown, and I honestly have no idea what’s going on here, except that it seems to involve vampires. Aaron King was kind enough to give me a copy of Brian Evenson’s book about Ed the Happy Clown, but I have yet to read it. As with many of these old Yummy Fur issues, the real treat is the Jesus backup story. Chester Brown does a brilliant job of presenting an unsanitized, unvarnished Jesus.

CONAN THE BARBARIAN #65 (Marvel, 1976) – B+. The artwork and dialogue in this issue are brilliant but the plot is just average. It’s an adaptation of an REH non-Conan story, “The Thunder Rider,” with a villain named Tezcatlipoca. I suppose the implication is that this character was the inspiration for the mythological Tezcatlipoca, but this is never clearly stated. The plot is not particularly exciting and acts mostly as a distraction from the ongoing Bêlit saga.

ISIS #1 (DC, 1976) – C-. This issue is notable only because it has a female protagonist, which was unusual at the time, and because it includes some effective inking by Wally Wood (or his assistants). I think Isis must have been either a direct Wonder Woman knockoff or an attempt to capitalize on the same Women’s Lib craze that resulted in the Wonder Woman TV series. Either way, the story is just completely stupid and forgettable.

SUICIDE SQUAD #21 (DC, 1988) – A-. This issue unfortunately includes a “Bonus Book” feature starring Bronze Tiger. I say unfortunately because this feature is written by Larry Ganem, and if that name sounds unfamiliar, that’s probably because he’s a terrible writer. This story is an incoherent mess of cliches and Asian stereotypes, and it interrupts the flow of the main story, which is excellent. The real strength of Suicide Squad is its large cast of utterly distinct and unique characters. Even if most of them are deeply flawed and screwed-up people, they’re all entertaining to read about. Besides that, the plot of this issue is exciting; it involves a senator’s attempts to blackmail the Squad into assassinating a rival.

SUICIDE SQUAD #5 (DC, 1987) – B+. This isn’t quite as good as the above issue, but it’s still excellent. The highlight of this issue is the Penguin, who is effectively depicted as a pompous, vain little man.

MIND MGMT #0 (Dark Horse, 2012) – N/A. At this point I started reading through my collection of MIND MGMT as part of my research for the book chapter I’m currently writing. I’ve been reading scattered issues of MIND MGMT, and I haven’t really been able to get into it because I didn’t understand the backstory. However, on reading the first hardcover collection, I really started to get it, and you will see that each of the issues reviewed below will receive a significantly higher score than the issues I’ve reviewed earlier. I didn’t actually “read” issue 0 because it consists of material that’s also included in the first collection, so I’m not giving it a grade.

MIND MGMT #7 (Dark Horse, 2013) – A-. This issue introduces the Ad Man and his assassination letters. It also includes a story that plays out at the bottom of the page, where the hypothetical MIND MGMT agents reading the field report might not be able to see it. I read this and each subsequent issue along with Drew Bradley’s “Minding Mind MGMT” column at Multiversity Comics, which is absolutely essential for a full understanding of the series; without this column I would have missed half of what’s going on here.

MIND MGMT #9 (Dark Horse, 2013) – A-. This issue focuses primarily on Dusty. There is a brilliant sequence at the end that consists of groups of square and round panels, separated by thick black lines. It turns out that each group of panels is a letter of morse code, and together they spell out DON’T TRUST LYME – or they almost do, because Matt made a few minor mistakes here. This is an example of the sort of thing I’d never have noticed without Drew Bradley’s annotations.

MIND MGMT #10 (Dark Horse, 2013) – B+. This is the one where Meru and Harry recruit Duncan by using random methods to defeat his precognitive powers. Not the most memorable issue of the series.

MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDS FOREVER #13 (IDW, 2015) – A-. Jeremy Whitley is getting really good at this series; this is one of his better efforts and it’s comparable to Katie and Andy’s work. The featured characters in this issue are Babs Seed and Rarity, and the basic conflict is that Rarity tries to get Babs to enjoy the things Rarity likes, not realizing that Babs has her own interests. The delightful surprise is when we discover what Babs does like: roller derby. I actually kind of want to show this issue to my friends who are roller derby fans, like Marsha Bryant.

UNCLE SCROOGE #228 (Gladstone, 1988) – B-. The Barks story in this issue, “Chugwagon Derby,” is funny but insubstantial. The punchline of the story – that the goal of the race was to lose, not win – is apparently based on an actual practical joke that used to be practiced at county fairs. The European stories in this issue are effectively just filler material.

LADY KILLER #1 (Dark Horse, 2015) – B+. A funny and well-crafted first issue. Joëlle Jones’s artwork takes a bit of getting used to, but she draws some gorgeous facial expressions. And the premise of this series is brilliant – it’s an effective satire of ‘50s sexism and intolerance.

MIND MGMT #15 (Dark Horse, 2013) – A-. This issue is told from Harry Lyme’s perspective, covering the period from the Zanzibar disaster to his initial encounter with Meru. The somewhat shocking revelation here is that Meru visited Harry seven times and he wiped her memory each time. An interesting footnote here is about the guy from earlier in the series who told Meru that Guangzhou was the name of a small village. Guangzhou is, of course, the name of one of the largest cities in China, and Matt Kindt was apparently accused of stupidity and even racism for not knowing that. In this issue, though, we discover that the misidentification of Guangzhou was actually done on purpose.

MIND MGMT #18 (Dark Horse, 2013) – A+. This may be the strongest single issue of the series. It focuses on Meru’s attempt to recruit Ella, the girl who talks to animals. Much of the issue is designed like a Richard Scarry book, with lower-case labels identifying all the characters and objects; this is alternately adorable and creepy. The issue ends with Meru giving up on recruiting Ella and leaving her alone with her animal friends, and this is a very satisfying resolution, especially in such a grim and depressing comic. Matt Kindt said on Twitter that his daughter asked if he could read this issue, and so he was forced to make it age-appropriate.

MIND MGMT #19 (Dark Horse, 2013) – A-. This issue introduces the magician, whose name I can’t remember offhand. Trying to recruit her, Meru and Lyme instead end up ruining her entire life, which makes the reader wonder whether they’re really on the right side. The brilliant visual device in this issue is that some of the panels look as if they’re torn scraps of paper overlaid on top of the actual page. This is an effective visual metaphor for the way that the magician imposes her illusions on her audience.

DEADSHOT #2 (DC, 1988) – B+/A-. This miniseries focuses on perhaps the most complex and conflicted character in Suicide Squad. The writing is up to Ostrander (and Yale)’s usual level of quality, though Luke McDonnell’s artwork is looser than usual.

MIND MGMT #23 (Dark Horse, 2013) – A-. This is the one where Bill gets killed, which is rather heartbreaking – Bill was perhaps the most inoffensive and well-intentioned character in the series. The visual gimmick this time around is that the last page is an Al Jaffee-style fold-in.

MIND MGMT #24 (Dark Horse, 2014) – B+. This issue is intended as a jumping-on point for new readers. Like #15, it’s narrated by Harry Lyme, and it summarizes much of the plot of the first 23 issues. There wasn’t a whole lot of new information here, nor were there any memorable visual or formatting tricks.

BATGIRL #37 (DC, 2015) – C+. This issue has become notorious for the transphobic implications of its ending. To their credit, Cameron, Brenden and Babs publicly apologized for the offensive nature of this story, which is more than most DC creators would have done. Still, this issue was a severe miscalculation and it killed the momentum this series had been building. I didn’t even get around to reading this issue until #38 had already come out, because I was expecting to hate it, and I wonder how many other readers aren’t going to bother coming back for future issues. It may seem a bit hypocritical to say all of this when other DC creators have done much worse things without making any attempt to apologize, but Batgirl is supposed to be the good DC title – it’s supposed to be DC’s attempt to lure back the readers that their other comics have driven away. And that means it has to be held to higher standards than a regular DC title.

Beyond the whole transphobia thing, this comic is becoming annoying because its characters are all fairly well-off, tech-savvy urbanites, and they don’t show much awareness of how privileged they are compared to most people their age. I’m starting to get the impression that Batgirl is a caricature of the lives of contemporary twentysomethings, rather than an attempt at an accurate portrayal.

MIND MGMT #25 (Dark Horse, 2014) – B+. This issue resumes the story after things went to hell and back in #22 and #23 (#21 and #22, along with some earlier issues, are not reviewed here because I read them on my Kindle). This story gives us some effective insights into Meru’s character, but it didn’t wow me as much as some of the earlier issues did.

MIND MGMT #26 (Dark Horse, 2014) – A-. In this issue, Meru meets Sir Francis, the original Immortal, and learns about MIND MGMT’s origin. The fascinating visual gimmick here is that the “Field Guide” segments explain what the Field Guide is and where it came from, and near the end of the issue, the blue Field Guide text leaves the margin of the page and penetrates the live area of the image. I need to think more about the implications of that.


Comics Studies Is Not a Busman’s Holiday

Several years ago, I was at a conference on comics where one of the other presenters was a senior faculty member whose specialty was in something else. He told me he was there on a “busman’s holiday” — that is, he was presenting at the conference as a break from his real academic work. The term “busman’s holiday” means a vacation in which one does the same thing that one does while at work (the reference is to a hypothetical bus driver who goes on vacation by taking a long drive).

This is an unfortunately common phenomenon. Thanks to its association with childhood and popular culture, comics has the reputation of being a “fun” area of study. Clearly it’s true that comics are a lot of fun to read and that comics studies is an entertaining area of study. But that doesn’t mean that comics, as an area of study, or comics studies, as a field, do not deserve to be taken seriously. Nor does it mean that comics are “easier ”texts to analyze than literary texts.

So I just want to point out one thing: Comics studies is not a busman’s holiday. Going to a conference on comics studies is not a vacation from your “real” work. Comics studies is an academic discipline, albeit a young and emerging one, and it has an established body of scholarship. Faculty from other fields who dip into comics studies need to apply the same degree of academic rigor to their work on comics as to their “real” field.

And I have frequently seen the opposite phenomenon. I’m obviously not calling out anyone in particular, but I’ve heard numerous conference papers about comics that were simply sympathetic close readings ofthe texts involved, and that failed to offer any non-obvious insights. I’ve heard other conference papers on comics where it was clear that the presenter did not do any research, and was just speaking on the basis of his or her personal impressions about the comics medium or the comics industry.

I’m sure that this same sort of thing happens in other fields– I mean, I’m sure we’ve all heard all sorts of bad conference papers – but I think that the phenomenon I describe here is particularly common in comics studies. And in an article on Charlie Hebdo, my colleague Mark McKinney suggests a possible reason why: “Commentators have probably felt free to string together arguments quickly about the meanings of Charlie Hebdo‘s work because the cartoons that have been circulating appear to be transparently, universally readable.” There is a common uninterrogated notion that comics and cartoons are “easier” texts than prose literature or film, because the meaning of a cartoon is simple and obvious – you understand a cartoon automatically, without having to think aboutit.

This mentality is why people condemn Charlie Hebdo as racist on the basis of the cartoon showing the Boko Haram victims as pregnant welfare queens, without looking into Charlie Hebdo’s history of anti-racist advocacy. I’m not saying here that Charlie Hebdo is not racist, only that judgments about Charlie Hebdo’s racism can be usefully nuanced by an awareness of the history behind these cartoons. (EDIT: See for a further explanation of this point.) This mentality – the belief that comics studies is easy– is also why people teach Maus, Persepolis or Fun Home in literature classes on the basis that these texts are “easier” or more “fun” than literary texts on the same subjects. Again, I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing to do. Comics can certainly be an accessible way of introducing more visually oriented students to difficult topics – I obviously believe that or else I wouldn’t include comics in every course I teach. The error here is in believing that comics like Maus, Persepolis and Fun Home are easier to analyze or understand than prose-based Holocaust memoirs, LGBT autobiographies, etc., simply because they include pictures. In fact, comics’ inclusion of images creates additional interpretive difficulties that don’t exist with prose literature. A useful explanation of this point is Charles Hatfield’s chapter “The Otherness of Comics Reading” in Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. And close analysis reveals that even the simplest and most seemingly transparent comics in fact use the formal resources of the comics medium in non-obvious ways. The classic demonstration of this point is Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik’s “How to Read Nancy,” which shows the depth of meaning present inNancy, the simplest and most banal of all comic strips.

So the first point I want to make here is that if you approach comics as a nonexpert in the field, you should not assume comics are “easy,” because they are not. You should apply the same level of interpretive rigor to comics as you would to prose texts or films. I don’t want to discourage people from studying or teaching comics – quite the opposite. I merely want to suggest that people should approach comics with the proper degree of respect for their difficulty, and that people who study or teach comics for the first time should develop a basic understanding of best practices for doing so. If you’re just getting into comics studies, I (and, I’m sure, other comics scholars as well) will be happy to help you figure out where to start.

And this leads to a larger point: the fact that comics are not easy is why comics studies matters. As the Charlie Hebdo massacre demonstrates, comics make people angry – they seem to have a way of bypassing the interpretive faculty and exerting an immediate effect on our primal emotions. In this and other ways, comics seem not to need interpretation. But as I’ve argued above, comics are as deep and as much in need of interpretation as any other genre of texts, and that is why we need comics studies, especially at a time when comics have suddenly taken on vast international importance. Comics studies is not a vacation from your “real” work; it’s as real as anything else.