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.
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, 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 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?
My to-read shelf is full of spooky stories I failed to read in October and downer Scandinavian novels—it’s stuff that I don’t dare read in the gray unkindness of winter. Luckily, stuck between a glowering omnibus of a Sigrid Undset tetralogy and 1,000 pages of Hawthorne, I found a holdout of pulpy genre books.
The magazine-sized Buffalo Bill is part of Rapacz’s impressive Pulp Curios package, a collection of handsomely printed novellas and magazines. In the Gallery of the Machines is a loyal homage to the Street & Smith dime novels, detailing the waning days of Buffalo Bill’s show and his commitment to the world around him.
Part of Bill’s show is the Patagonian giant, Boneshriek, and most of the short story’s conflict comes from his desire to leave the show due to recurring existential ennui—he isn’t sure where he comes from or where he belongs. Bill is adamant that Boneshriek’s place is in the show, breaking railroad ties and flipping carriages. Bill’s retention of Boneshriek becomes paradoxical, though; while the giant will benefit the Wild West Show, it also benefits Bill’s foil, Thomas Edison, who plans to use Boneshriek to exhibit his new direct current electricity. By keeping Boneshriek, Bill also contributes to the advent of electronic entertainment, displacing the human-powered show that keeps Bill and his show afloat.
Tragedy ensues, but it’s more immediate than anything Bill could have assumed. Bill’s drunken plodding toward the horrific ending makes In the Gallery of the Machines feel like a Greek tragedy; whether Boneshriek stayed or left, it would have been at Bill’s behest, and either way, Bill loses.
Rapacz keeps a careful handle on the dialogue, never slipping into the over-apostrophied renditions of bad Western slang. Buffalo Bill himself code-switches between the overblown speech patterns of the dime novels and the cosmopolitan accent of a tired soldier and world traveler. The narration flirts with the original pulps’ purple proses, but it shows enough restraint for modern readers.
He had seen a cold calf born in the dead of winter upon a field of snow. Saw it come sliding, half-froze, out of the mother. Watched it fall like a log into the bank. No steam rising from it. Its fluids thick and cold and jellied upon it.
If the Buffalo Bill’s electric tragedy isn’t enough, there’s bonus story at the end: “Crookstone,” is a creepy coda to the book. In the vein of Ambrose Bierce or Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Crookstone” is about an abandoned baby who won’t die, a backwoods kaiju, and the unknowable nature of the wild.
Where In the Gallery of the Machines is a modern iteration of a pulp, Mystery Mark is a shadowy echo of New Wave sci-fi. It feels like a Philip K. Dick adaptation of a Bruegel painting that’s been edited down to a blacklisted television pilot.
The book is a back-and-forth game of telephone between Wagner and Ellsworth—Wagner wrote words based on Ellsworth drawings who drew more based on the words and so on. It’s a quick read and is roughly the story of a scared man rediscovering hope, but it all takes place in a world of skeleton spies, spider safecrackers, face replacement surgeries, and a possibly sentient stuffed animal.
Wagner’s prose is straightforward—we’re told exactly what happens and how characters feel. In a naturalistic novel, this would most likely be a detriment, as we expect subtlety and metaphors in literary dramas. In Mystery Mark, though, the world itself is subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) metaphor, so the clear prose acts as a sugar coating that helps the oddness go down. Put another way, Ellsworth’s drawings lend the world a strange texture to which Wagner’s writing can play the straight man.
They were the best there ever was—at least that’s what they told each other, and got no argument from anyone. But jobs were scarce these days and competition was fierce. A skeleton had to stay on top of his game.
My one complaint regarding both Mystery Mark and In the Gallery of the Machines is the lack of lady agency. Each book contains a single woman. In Mystery Mark, it’s a snuggly nurse with nary a line of dialogue. Buffalo Bill gives us the legendary Annie Oakley, but we’re repeatedly told how she’s changed since she’s had kids. In the end, Bill narratively emasculates her, taking her gun to use in the fateful denouement. It felt like an aborted case of Chekhov’s gun; we’re shown this sharpshooter but never allowed to see her shoot. While it’s great to see older genres tweaked and reinvigorated, it’s too bad those genres’ gender politics weren’t updated too.
The Sculptor, Scott McCloud’s just released graphic novel, is a dense and impressive work. Using a set of familiar tropes (a deal with the devil, an artist and his muse, superpowers with consequences), McCloud tells a deep and affecting story while avoiding the pitfalls of said tropes. He uses a full complement of storytelling methods to control the rhythm and pacing across hundreds of pages without seeming flashy or clinically formalist.
I honestly wanted to dislike The Sculptor. I had just finished a new release by one of McCloud’s contemporaries (age-wise, at least, and probably fame-wise) that left a sour taste in my mouth. I was ready to read this book and write off an entire generation of cartoonists.
The introductions of McCloud’s many moving parts had me primed for dismissal: a deal with a too-cutesy Death, a troubled male artist and his beautiful but out-of-bounds muse, and big questions about the importance of art. I was ready to see the deal backfire due to the artist’s pride, to see the muse (a manic pixie dream girl) be harmed in the process, and then see the artist learn that art is universal or something like that.
I was so happy to have my expectations subverted. With almost 500 pages at his disposal, McCloud refuses to rush through his plot. The characters gain development and dimensionality. They rub up against their faults and the faults of others, circle each other, come apart, and return. And yes, maybe the guy gets the girl, but the girl has a full range of emotions, their relationship has ups and downs, and their love is a project they work on together.
And art’s not universal. Art is a mix of human desires, market forces, and human whims, and it doesn’t have any answers.
Protagonist David begins the book seeking success as an artist. He’s at an all-time low, drunk and penniless. He’s given 200 days of magic powers to meet his goal, and then he dies.
These powers come from his hands, and McCloud doesn’t let us forget this:
Hands are what we use to grab the world, mold it, push it. The implication is that David has power, responsibility, and agency. He’s primed to be the hero who takes control of his life in his final days and seize victory from Death!
But that’s not what The Sculptor is about. Instead, it’s about David learning what he can’t control. His hands, able to sculpt any inanimate material with a touch, aren’t worth a thing when his muse, Meg, is struggling with a mood disorder. His hands can’t make people like his art. They can’t stave off death or bring back his family.
The length of the book is key to McCloud’s organic development of the characters, and he utilizes every inch of space in a thoughtful way. Regular grids with wide margins take the reader through conversations at a comfortable pace, but McCloud also stretches panels to the gutters to lead into scene changes…
…or creates frenetically repetitive layouts for stressful party scenes.
The texture and coloring lends a quiet three-dimensionality to the drawings that’s appropriate for a story about sculpting, and it reveals a skillset that hasn’t found a place in other McCloud works.
With the comfortable display of cartooning skill on display and the touching character work, I’m worried that there’s some hidden flaw in The Sculptor that McCloud has puttied over and rounded off—some crumbling foundation that I missed while I was too busy being wowed. If that’s the worst thing I can say about the book, though, I’ll count it as a success. Besides, it gives me a reason to walk through its pages again.
Psst: Hear McCloud read from The Sculptor at Macalester on February 15! Details here.