My quest to read 31 graphic novels in the 31 days of October had continued unreported! Despite a lack of word on the blog, the battle raged offline I polished off another 13 volumes since I last updated. That’s a total of 17, with close to 3000 pages of comics read so far! Around the 12th of the month, I was starting to wonder if this was still going to get done. I have a missed a couple of days and work was piling up again. With a quick pep talk and a couple of marathon sessions, I’m back in business and on-track to finish! I should only be two volumes off my pace by the end of the 21st, and have a big weekend of comic reading ahead. Still to come, I have Godland, Rasl, 100 Bullets, Blacksad and more.
Comics really are pretty awesome
5 and 6 of 31
Ok, so a little behind, but that’s work. Numbers 5 and 6 were connected, so I’ll handle the blog entry as one. Batman: Blink and Batman: Don’t Blink are two stories that appeared in the late, (sometimes) great Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight series that debuted after the ’89 Burton film. Telling offbeat stories that walked between the raindrops of Batman continuity, these issues showcased some great throw-back and orphaned Batman stories.
It was good to read these two after having read BPRD for my 4th book. Mignola’s stuff is so rarefied because he has his finger in all of it. With his directing mind hovering over every project, each Hellboy and BPRD story feels special and adds something to the on-going mythos. With Batman, a character that’s been around so long and fallen in to so many different hands and interpretations, it’s always nice to discover something you’ve never seen before, to find some great story outside the mainstage continuity. I remember in 2004 discover the Mike Barr story where Batman and Talia get it on and the character that would become Damian Wayne was conceived (although Batman and Robin #0 in the DCnu may have obliterated that bit of Batman lore… I can’t tell). To stumble across that original story from the 80’s- which was collected in an oversize pre-trade paperback collection that I picked up for $2 from a local bookstore – was a great accidental discovery.
I can’t say that Blink and Don’t Blink are overlooked classics. Written by Dwayne McDuffie with art by Val Semeiks, they tell the story of Lee Hyland, a man born without eyes but possessing the uncanny ability to see through the eyes of whomever he touches. So if he brushes up against you in a crowd, he now sees the world from your perspective, including your credit card number, bank account pin, the combination to your safe, etc. Profiting off this petty crime for years, one day Lee brushes up against the wrong person – a snuff film making serial killer. This leads him to Batman, and Batman lead to adventure. Don’t Blink, is a sequel to the original, where the government discovers Lee’s power after his having worked with Batman, and imprison him for national security purposes.
Not exactly barnburners, but they grew on me. McDuffie was of course the great story editor on the animated Justice League cartoons, and that Timm/Dini sensibility is evident here as well. This is very much the animated Batman (which is my favorite rendition of Batman ever). This isn’t super-ninja-master Batman – this is Sherlock Holmes in a cape and cowl, he needs to do detective work, he is in real danger, and he really struggles to take out two thugs at once. More of the pulp sensibilities. McDuffie never wrote for Batman:TAS, so this may be as close as we come. Not Eisner-worthy, perhaps, but two nice warm reminders of my favorite kind of Batman stories.
7 of 31
The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck: Companion
I’ve never read the Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, mostly because it’s gone out of print from BOOM!, and second-hand copies of the collection sell for upwards of $200.00. I hate that I slept on these original volumes as they came out, but hopefully Disney will re-release them through Marvel (or in Disney style, maybe they’ll ‘bring them out of the vault’). If this collection of B-sides and rarities is any indication, those stories must be knockouts.
Now we all know Scrooge McDuck, be it from the comics, the DuckTales cartoon and film, or the ever-popular Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Instead of the crotchety old miser and his nephews, these stories deal with Scrooge McDuck’s younger years in the wildwest, Klondike, Australian outback and jungles of Panama. Don Rosa (the other quintessential McDuck artist) loves to insert characters from history, like Wyatt Earp, Teddy Roosevelt, Jack London and more.
The Klondike stories really stand out for me, as McDuck struggles with the love of his life, Glittering Goldie. This unrequited love/hate relationship brings a tragic element you wouldn’t expect from a book about talking Ducks without pants, and draws the disparate threads of the stories together. I think everyone has a Glittering Goldie in their life.
I called Don Rosa the other Duck artist, coupled with Carl Barks, the creator of Scrooge McDuck whose stories pre-date these. I love the Bark’s tales too, and admit that I’m criminally under-read in that canon. Barks brought the high-adventure sensibility and a dense storytelling style that packed more concepts into a book then most 6-issue collections have now. But I have to say, and this might be Scrooge McDuck blasphemy, but I think I prefer the Rosa stuff to the Barks. Barks used the simple line, the high-adventure stuff, the implausible science. Rosa’s style, both in art and story, bring a warmth and depth. I appreciate that this is largely because Rosa grew up such a huge devotee of Barks and his simply extending the boundaries of the tradition, but even as something as simple as crosshatching on Scrooge feels like a giant leap in sophistication.
On the podcast I’ve previously discussed the Uncle Scrooge story that predicts the Christopher Nolan film Inception. That story, titled Dream of a Lifetime, is included as a capper to this collection. So I thought that was Don Rosa being all genius sauce, and it is, but also apologies, as the story was suggested from an unnamed reader from Paris, France. All the falling in a dream to wake up – that was all from Rosa though.
Uncle Scrooge stories are such a pinnacle of cartooning. It’s rare that a superhero comic satisfies and charms me the way a DuckTales story does every single time.
8 and 9 of 31
Hulk Visionaries : Peter David, Volumes 1 and 2.
How do you begin a kickass review about the Hulk? Start with X-Factor. In 2005, bored and killing time before a night class during my first year of University, I stumbled into the comic shop on campus, having already been to pick up my comics for the week the day before. Now, I was just looking for any distraction to fill my time instead of doing the reading I had actually been assigned. Scrambling around, I picked up two comics that I normally would have ignored – the first was Ed Brubaker’s Captain America #1, where the Red Skull is assassinated at the end of the issue. The second was X-Factor number one, recently re-launched with Peter David back at the helm. Of all the number ones so often re-launched, those two had some staying power. Brubaker only recently left the Cap family, cementing his legacy as the single largest creative influence on the character in twenty years (his Winter Soldier story from early in that Cap run will be the topic of the film sequel). As for X-Factor, we’re still waiting to see where that one ends. David has endured since my first days of undergrad, right through my second degree, persisting now to my having entered the working world. A survivor of event-fatigue, roster shifts dictated from above, and an ever-present risk of cancellation, David has crafted, to my mind, the most real, heartfelt and believable characters in the Marvel Universe. He’s been original, progressive and dynamic.
But this isn’t about comics I’ve loved for the last decade, this is about stuff I haven’t read before.
In casual comic shop conversation, when I tell people about how much I enjoy Peter David’s current run on X-Factor, I invariably get asked if I’ve read his first classic run on a title that exceeded 100 issues – the Incredible Hulk. And I always have to tell them no, and then they figure out what a fair-weather fan I truly am. But I’m rectifying that this month, having just polished off two of the eight volumes that collect his 100 issue span on this book. Much like X-Factor, David makes you care about people you shouldn’t really care about. He’s not afraid to have characters progress and develop as people. Clay Quartermain goes from a heartless would-be assassin to a reformed secret-agent as he joins Banner, Rick Jones and Betty in the back of Battle van as fugitives on the run. The Grey Hulk, a recent development in these pages, goes from being the living embodiment of all Banner’s vices (a veritable Mr. Hyde) to a sympathetic creature who slowly atones for his guilt and eases his constant agitation.
Beyond the pages, no one progresses through the course of these stories than the artist, someone you may have heard of, millionaire-to-be Todd MacFarlane. Back in these days though he was just starting out, and that’s pretty clear from some rough-around-the-edges early issues. With a simplier, cleaner style than what he would one day be famous for on Spiderman and later, Spawn, you can see and feel Todd work out his craft on the pages. In the span of 12 issues, the artist is a completely different animal. The line work takes on sophistication, the shading and cross-hatching gets beefed up, the storytelling improves. Although it sounds like the relationship between writer and artist was rocky at times (not quite John Byrne level), the experience seems to have been quite formative for Todd.
Despite the complexity of art and character, one aspect of the series was gloriously unsophisticated super-villainy awesomeness of The Leader! Unrepentant, 1960’s-style moustache twirling, evil gadgetry, abusing his foolish minions, monologuing into his recording devices and overall being diabolical.
It does a comic fan good.
Great books and I can’t wait to track down the other 6 volumes!
10 of 31
Woohoo for double digits! As I fell a little behind in my quest to get 31 books read in the31 days of October, the one thing I regret is that I find myself rushing through content more than I would hope to. But when it came to number 10, Moving Pictures by Kathryn and Stuart Immonen, I found myself slowing down and soaking up the art like the paper soaked up Stuart’s heavy inks. Moving Pictures tells the story of Ila, a Canadian ex-pat wiling away the days of German Occupation in WWII Paris while working at museum cataloguing and hiding France’s cultural capital from Nazi hands. As the toll of the occupation realizes itself, Ila becomes increasingly segregated from the people around and delves deeper into the world of the art and the deception of her smuggling. In a world where your local baker can disappear without explanation or where failing to make eye-contact with a German soldier in the street can get you hauled in for interrogation, Ila numbs to personal connection. That is until she meets Rolf, a German soldier looking for an obscure piece or art, with unforeseen consequences attached.
Prepared by Canada’s preeminent comic book couple, this book has the feel of a solo creator’s touch. Immonen’s chameleon style settles on something akin to David Mazzucchelli guileless precision. The book is done in black and white, heavy especially large swathes of black ink. Beautiful stuff to see.
I bought this book from the Immonen’s themselves at a con in my hometown. They were especially lovely people. When you buy the book from them, Stuart opens up to the first page and hammers out a pitch-perfect headsketch of Rolf. Then he hands the book to Kathryn and she goes to work with her pen. If you’re simple (like me) you think that she’s just signing her name, but then you think, “wait a minute, this is taking too long for her to just be signing her name” and you I see that she’s lettering, in perfect form, the words, “it’s nothing to do with me.” If you were to glance at this, you think it was typed in, or if done by hand, the kind of calligraphy that would be painstakingly slow to accomplish. Instead, she knocked this out in 10 seconds. While it’s always awe-inspiring to see artists do their thing, there’s no denying the talent of the letters out there.
A simply-told tale of complex ideas and an existential meditation on the uneasy calm hovering at the boundaries of war, Moving Pictures delivers.
11 Through 16 of the 31
So the Blog entries got a little off track, and there was less to talk about, and to be honest, it’s hard to keep pace with the 31 for 31 if you stop and naval-gaze after each one. To make up for it, a couple of quick hitters.
11- The Authority Vol. 1: Relentless – Another classic I’m coming to for the first time. Warren Ellis writes big concept, modern-feel superheroes. You know how we can look at the art of a book and say – that’s Bronze Age, that’s so 90’s, that’s got a Silver age charm. The art here is the same way – you see it and immediately now this was made late 90s, early 2000s. It’s that blend of streamlined Image-90’s stuff polished with the sophistication of the computer-generated coloring. It’s a moment in time. Strong writing and concepts, and I know this was just the introduction to the larger, more political stuff. Bruce Timm said this series was their inspiration for the Justice Lords in the Justice League cartoon. For no other reason I’ll read on, but probably only borrow rather than buy.
12 – BPRD Vol. 2: The Soul of Venice and Others – Having read volume 1 earlier in the month, I didn’t understand why people are generally so down on the first two BPRD volumes. Then I read this one. It was fun to see the Johns/Kollins story, and the title story is solid Mignola-fun, but otherwise these stories generally fall below the subtle wonder of the franchise. Now that said…
13 – BPRD Vol. 3: Plague of Frogs – This stuff rocked! The first five-issue story involving the team is a great extension of the Hellboy stuff, but it really starts to round into its own thing, without just being Hellboy-lite. As we pour into the backstory of Abe, the problems with Liz and the complexities of Roger, these characters start to soar. In the coming months, I’m going to get serious about catching up on these stories. Awesome stuff.
14 – Hellboy Vol 11. – Bride of Hell and Others: What a great collection. I started to read Hellboy in singles around this time, so some of these stories I recall from my collection, but they’re even better on the re-read. Hellboy in Mexico and Bride of Hell are both great. Mignola follows up the Wild Hunt by continuing to firmly fix the Hellboy mythos in Arthurian lore and real(ish) British history. Kinda sad that this collection might be the last of the “monster-of-the-week” style Hellboy adventures we get for a while. And why’s that? Just look to…
15 – Hellboy Vol. 12: The Storm and the Fury – The main threads of the Hellboy universe collide in these pages, culminating with one of the most impactful comic book moments of the decade. The incredible Duncan Fregredo kills it on every page. The series could end here and be praised as one of the greatest comic book inventions of all time. Luckily, there’s still more to come.
16 – American Vampire Vol. 1 – My Bat-doration of Scott Snyder had yet to spill out into the book he (pardon the pun) cut his teeth on. With back-ups scripted by Steven King, and art by the genius that is Rafael Albuquerque this book takes one of my least favorite tropes (vampires) and places it in one of my favorite locales (old Hollywood). The hook that there is a new breed of “American” vampire colliding with the old-world European vampire we know so well, is an inspired twist. Snyder gives himself so much room to grow. In a weird way, this book reminded me of The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, in the way the same characters have the entirety of the American 20th century as their backdrop. That’s an epic scope, and I’m fully on board now.
17 of 31
Beanworld Vol. 2: A Gift Comes
Beanworld tells the story of little bean-shaped critters called, well, Beans. They live in a Beanworld composed on a life-giving tree, an island surrounded by layers of materials (mostly symbols) that have certain properties. Far below the surface dwell the Hoi-polloi, ghoulish faces that bet and haggle over Chow, small little black beads. These beads offer life-giving nutrients to the Beans, so the Beans, led by their hero Mr. Spook dive down below and bully the Hoi into giving up the Chow, and in exchange they leave behind a Sprout-Butt (given from the tree, the Gran’Ma’Pa) which the Hoi are able to turn into more Chow. Beyond this simply hunter/gatherer world, some of the Beans get to be special, like the smartest Bean of all, Professor Garbanzo, and the artist, Beanish, who is able to have special conversations with the sun (or something like the sun), a lovely face in the sky called Dreamishness.
I read volume 1 of Beanworld a year or so ago and found myself in a quandary. I could tell it was good. I could tell it was lovingly crafted, poignant and purposeful. I have heard from other readers that I greatly respect that this book was a work of genius, that Larry Marder’s sweet, goofy, petri dish universe was telling a tale of life and how it is to be lived.
I didn’t get that at all.
What I got was simplistic and vague. I got plots that went nowhere, stories without conflict, and arbitrary rules with mock-importance. I had no real timeline for starting the second book, and wasn’t sure I would (although I made the classic meathead collector mistake of being all three volumes in one fell swoop).
So in the interest of broadening my horizons through my month-long comic odyssey, I decided to trudge up Beanworld for another go ‘round, and I’m happy to report my outlook has changed. With the benefit of my confusion from the first volume, the realities of Beanworld seem less arbitrary now. I’m more familiar with the world and the concepts, and when the reader isn’t fighting those so much, the artistry comes to the surface. A helpful device in this volume is that Beanworld has been blessed with a gift – a whole tub full of little baby beans who the Professor and Mr. Spook have to educate with the history of Beanworld (which is news to reader as well).
This volume charmed me. By using the very simple to explain the highly complicated, Marder lays out a treatise on life, on an individual’s place in society, the cycles of adulthood and more. Do I totally get it? No. But I’m closer, and more willing and more open. Reading Beanworld is a zen-like exercise. It is demanding in its refusal to cater to expectations, and unlike other fiction, it doesn’t follow a narrative arc invented to amaze us, instead it follows the narrative arc inherited from a life well-lived according to a natural order. Reading it was like hitting the reset button. It provided a gentle reality check about what’s actually important.
Beanworld also provides an interesting look at what comics can be. Like the real great works of the medium, this story could not have been told as effectively if either a novel or film (although, an animated Beanworld would be pretty sweet…). This is a semiotics workshop, reminding us that the value of art stems from the viewer, not the artist. Art is a reminder, a prod to bring forward the big ideas and powerful emotions that lurk in all of us. I failed to get that Volume 1 because I wasn’t taking the material to heart. I was imposing my expectations upon it and failing to meet the art halfway.
If you’re a fan of comics, do yourself the favor of Beanworld. It has the potential be something very special to you.