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What We’re Reading: Monthly Comics

2016 September 1

What We're Reading

Recently, there’s been a lot written about how people currently buy comics and how they should buy them. There are definitely ways to improve the industry, but however things shake out in the future, I hope I’ll still be able to buy monthly comic books.

When I worked in a comic store, I was spending unimaginable amounts of money on the 20- to 64-page comics that are almost inevitably (at least these days) collected into books with spines and distributed to bookstores. It was also a time of frantically following comic news sites, reading interviews, tracking rumors of upcoming books, and participating in the loosely connected nation-states of the comics community.

It was a lot of time and money spent on things I’d eventually get rid of (moving sucks), but even now, years after, I’m still drawn to the occasional serialized comic. Done well, a serialized comic can feed the same hunger that shows like Game of Thrones do—an intense desire to know what happens next coupled with a group of like-minded readers who spin predictions and conspiracy theories about future plotlines. That said, here are a few comics I still anticipate every month.

blackpantherBlack Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, Chris Sprouse, Karl Story, and Laura Martin (Marvel, 2016)

I’m always intrigued when prose writers move to comics. Sometimes, I like their comics more than I like their prose. (I’m looking at you, Jonathan Lethem.) Sometimes, it’s so bad that future writers ignore or actively overturn the stories. (Sorry, Orscon Scott Card.) And sometimes, the transition is seamless.

Black Panther is one of those times. The book leaps from one genre to another: tense political thriller, magical realist family saga, and two-fisted superhero action are all woven together to create a slow-burning story of a king and his people.

Stelfreeze’s art is sharp, and his storytelling is clear, which is key when dealing with an ensemble cast. His designs for the Black Panther’s home country of Wakanda—its clothing, its landscape, and its cities—are impeccable. And the colors by Laura Martin are painstakingly applied, supplying an important emotional subtext to the big, black swaths of Stelfreeze’s ink. (And she’s not afraid to go big and bright, which is a welcome change in an era of often brown and gray superhero comics.)

My favorite storyline follows the struggles of Aneka and Ayo, disillusioned royal guards who have taken it upon themselves to help their countrymen whether their king wills it or no. These soldiers/rebels/lovers get all the best lines:


And when all hope is lost, when they become traitors to their king for the greater good, and they’re geared up for full-on insurrection…


Which just makes me even more excited for the upcoming World of Wakanda spinoff written by Roxanne Gay and Yona Harvey. Whaaaaat?

Usagi-Yojimbo-150-1Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai (Dark Horse, 2016)

Usagi Yojimbo, I will never quit you.

Usagi outlasted the black-and-white fighting animal comic craze of the ‘80s, running for over 200 issues and over 30 years. The historically accurate samurai rabbit outlasted ninja turtles, barbarian aardvarks, kung fu kangaroos, and black belt hamsters. After an extended break, Sakai is back, and the recent stretch of Usagi Yojimbo carries a kind of hardscrabble sadness that was absent the previous volumes.

His ink lines are scratchier now, and his protagonist seems weary and pragmatic. The book’s exploration of feudal Japanese culture, previous celebratory and meditative, have started to show cracks in the seams—Europeans are arriving in Usagi’s Japan, and their disdain for samurai culture feels ominous and fatal.

So the question is, will the dissolution of samurai culture mean the dissolution of Usagi as a character? The next few years of the comic could well be the most interesting chunk of this samurai epic, with Sakai at the top of his cartooning game, and his characters mired in world-changing historical events.


Copra-27Copra by Michel Fiffe (self-published, 2016)

Copra is movement. Copra is impressionistic. Copra is a sherbet smear dragged by a sci-fi asteroid after a celestial collision with a planet made of compacted 1980s action movie VHS tapes. Copra is superhero espionage vaulted into cosmic conflict.

One of the most engaging things about shared universes, whether it’s Star Wars, Buffy, or Marvel’s superhero universe, is how details slowly accrete. Writer A creates Character A, Writer B creates Setting B, and then Writer C gracefully combines them in a way that elevates both in a kind of existential cool alchemy.

But in a vast, ever-changing setting like Star Wars or Marvel, those combined details end up being stupid as often as they’re cool. The beauty of Copra comes from the singular mind behind the book: Michel Fiffe.

He’s woven the best superhero tropes, archetypes, and storytelling techniques into one of the most kinetic and visceral comics coming out today. Copra is a team of ne’er-do-wells along the lines of the Suicide Squad blackmailed into working with a master magician a la Dr. Strange, and they’re being drawn into an interdimensional conflict combining the bombast of Jack Kirby and the twisted vectors of Steve Ditko.

But Copra is more than homage. It has an intensely personal feeling—it’s a world of people who’ve been beaten, who’ve made bad choices, and who are constantly walking the line between giving in and rising above. Fiffe talks a lot about how Copra is an exercise of discipline for him—don’t stop moving, keep making pages, and never look back. And the characters of Copra feel the same; they’re sharks, and if they stop moving, they’re dead in the water. So they’re always taking one more mission.

Readers: what do you look for in serial fiction? Cliffhangers? Community? Something else?


What We’re (Going to Be) Reading: Autoptic Edition

2015 August 6

What We're Reading

The Autoptic Festival is this weekend, August 8 and 9. It’s a convention that focuses on prints, comics, and music, and it’s free to attend. MN Artists has an excellent write-up on some of the big-name artists who will be attending, and they’re all excellent choices. Autoptic is a huge festival, though, and there are five other artists whose books I’m looking forward to buying. In no particular order…

11822457_10205664710110089_6664723219953127088_n The Suitor by Nicholas Straight

It seems like a lot of Straight’s creative energy has been taken up with a design job, and while it’s always great to see an artist have steady work, I was sad that it seemed to come at the expense of his comics. But I was wrong! The Suitor is debuting at Autoptic, and it looks great.

Straight’s line work is fine and feathery, looking almost like etchings at times. A high level of detail typically contributes to a more static image, but Straight is also great at dropping those lines out when he needs to show movement and action:



In addition, the book seems like a generally beautiful object to have around. The die-cut cover (possibly done by hand?) over the pink paper is striking, and the full-page panels give it an “art book” feel and make it easy to browse after giving it a thorough read.

tumblr_nro529pUDh1rfs5alo1_1280 Ashen by Chase Van Weerdhuizen

It’s a comic so mysterious, I can’t even find the cover! Ashen looks to be a short black-and-white fantasy comic, and while I seriously overdosed on fantasy movies, shows, and novels around the age of 16, I still find delight in taking short dips into made-up worlds. It’s similar to what Kurt Vonnegut said about science fiction: “‘You know, the problem with science-fiction? It’s much more fun to hear someone tell the story of the book than to read the story itself.’ And it’s true: If you paraphrase a science-fiction story, it comes out as a very elegant joke, and it’s over in a minute or so. It’s a tedious business to read all the surrounding material.”

And based on what Van Weerdhuizen has shown so far, he’s going beyond the Tolkienesque tropes of elves and fellowships. The previews I’ve seen seem to echo Greek or Babylonian design, his monsters are fleshy and strange, and his halftones give a feeling of stark, lonely travel. With minimal narration and short dialogue, Ashen looks to be a slow trip through a strange land without any of the expositional baggage of a fantasy epic.

tumblr_ns68p84qVB1qafb8to10_1280 Fütchi Perf by Kevin Czap

I’d only heard of Czap through his co-distribution of the Ley Lines series (one of which I’ve reviewed here). When I saw this preview of Fütchi Perf, it felt more like being swept into a song than reading a comic. Hair and clothes and eyes loop together across establishing shots. Snippets of conversation are spattered across snapshots of hands and mouths.

And those colors!


It’s almost a neon pastel aesthetic, I guess, and it works perfectly for what Fütchi Perf seems to be—an album of shorts, with colors playing the roll of instruments, recurring through different songs but playing different notes. That’s a clumsy metaphor, especially next to Czap’s graceful lines, but it seems apt.



Phases by Maddi Gonzalez

I got to see the first few pages of Phases at a reading, and I’ve been looking forward to reading the rest. Gonzalez has always been a brave cartoonist, dealing directly with issues of mental health and representation. Phases looks to be light-hearted, but it’s still an important topic: how we define ourselves and how that definition changes over time.

What stands out most is Gonzalez’s excellent page structures. Here’s my favorite page from what I’ve seen so far.


When looking at pages like these, I try to consider what an artist didn’t do. Gonzalez could have used any number of comic “tricks” to show the passage of time: wide blank space, dense grid of panels with incremental differences, or a lone caption. Blank space is very ambiguous, though. A grid of incremental panels is more obvious to a reader, but it destroys the juxtaposition of Fairy Queen Maddi with Goth Pokemon Trainer Maddi. As for a plain block of narration, it’s the equivalent of movie voiceover: it gets the job done, but it doesn’t utilize the visual possibilities that make comics different from other media.

For the rest of preview and the option to buy the book as a PDF, check out this post.

51fjQdcTy7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Stroppy by Marc Bell

I initially only knew of Bell as the editor of Rudy by Mark Connery (which was probably my favorite book of 2014). That’s what led me to this conversation between the two about Bell’s new book, Stroppy.

The general aesthetic of the book looks great—a mix between Segar’s Thimble Theatre or Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, manic crosshatching like a ’60s underground, and bright, flat colors that feel like they came out of a Joost Swarte book. Here’s a sample from the publisher.

Bell recently did a reading at Magers & Quinn, but if you weren’t lucky enough to see him, he’s a late addition to the Autoptic bill, joining dozens of talented artists. Who are you going to see?

What We’re Reading: Alice in Sunderland

2015 April 2

What We're Reading

aliceAlice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse, 2007)

When Alice in Sunderland came out, I recall seeing a number of reviews saying that it would make the “Best Of” lists that year, but I paged through it in a store and was turned off by all the computer effects used in making the many collages throughout the book. I also thought it was just a remix of Alice in Wonderland coupled with a biography of Lewis Carroll, which felt like an easy cash-in to fans of the book and its history.

When I finally did read it, I was still a little turned off by the computer filters on a lot of the art, as seen here…


…but I think that’s just a personal quirk of my tastes that comes with growing to maturity alongside Photoshop. Talbot’s more traditional cartooning is present throughout the book and is as good as its ever been: a clear and emotive style with a strong eye for dramatic framing.


I was very happy with what Alice was actually about. It is sort of a remix of Carroll’s classic in that someone goes on a phantasmagorical journey, and it is sort of a biography of Carroll besides. In its fullness, though, it’s really about the history of England’s encounters with outsiders and the stories people tell themselves in order to understand that history their place in it.

Carroll’s purpose in the story is that both Oxford and Sunderland have “claimed” him as their own, and in examining Sunderland’s influence on Carroll and his works, Talbot, a Sunderland resident, gets drawn into the web of Sunderland’s history. What he finds is that nothing ends up being purely Sunderland; everything comes from somewhere else, but nothing goes back out without being changed. From the Picts through the Romans to the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans all the way to contemporary immigrants, the identity of a place gets built by the stories left behind by the people who move there, live there, and die there.

Given this, Talbot’s collages are formally appropriate. His cartooning, already shifting chimerically from British boys’ adventure to Beano-style humor, is pasted over and layered with photographs and paintings. The experience of wandering through Talbot’s reconstructions of Sunderland throughout time is a uniquely comic experience, but its lessons on the building of truths and fictions are universal.

It turns out I was completely wrong in my superficial judgment of Alice in Sunderland. Have any of our readers ever cast similar aspersions about a book and come around to love it?