Three panels from “The City in the Sea,” an adaptation by Richard Corben of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, from Corben’s collection Spirits of the Dead, Dark Horse Comics, 2019.
Hello, patient readers! I thought about writing about… well, any number of things in the political atmosphere at the moment, but they all fill me with despair! The viciousness and hypocrisy of various political factions whose fortunes have been reversed and find themselves on the top or the bottom of a pecking order that usually treats them differently; the acquittal of Donald Trump and his responsive exercise of power; further madness and cruelty at the border; the growing understanding that we’re all required to carry around little surveillance devices that sell our most private secrets to the highest bidder—this is all very depressing!
So I’m writing about comics this week. I hope you enjoy it.
I rarely write about all the comics I read, in part because I don’t have that kind of time and in part because, well, I don’t want to sound like a freak. I read a lot of comics. It’s a thing I do to relax but it also helps me feel like a normal human being, which is hard to square with the habit itself, since it is of course kind of eccentric. Over the course of a few years of therapy and meds to remedy some fairly urgent depression (I’m fine!), I’ve come to terms with the truism that life is stressful and filled with pressure and responsibilities, and a lot of work needs to be done to arrange those stresses and pressures so that they’re not causing harm to you or causing you to harm someone you love. Creative outlets are good, but they, of course, are also work, and so passive outlets are necessary, and while I like television and movies and video games as much as the next guy, I either find them not engaging enough or too engaging. When my brain is turning into mucilage at the end of my day I don’t really like looking at another video screen; I’ve spent too long doing that already.
So I read comics, and I buy comics that I might want to read later, using a horrifying percentage of my disposable income, and I collect and trade them and borrow them from the library and and hunt them down on eBay and steal them off the internet. This isn’t good; I’m kind of ashamed of a lot of it; but it’s better for a person like me than unwinding with drugs or booze or pornography, which are all as readily available and require about as much brain juice to engage with.
There are, of course, gradations of comics. There are some really intellectual ones, like Alan Moore’s Providence or Kevin Huizenga’s Ganges. And there are those that have layers upon layers—Dan Clowes’s stuff, Dame Darcy, Los Bros Hernandez, etc. But a fascinating thing about comics is that they’re neither “hot” media (like TV) nor “cool” media (like novels), exactly. To some extent, you can read them with your lizard brain the way you’d watch a sitcom or play a video game; they’re hugely immersive, once you understand how to read them.
But well-done comics also operate on several different very sophisticated levels, even the cotton-candy ones. There’s a difference between a good comic where the Hulk beats up Wolverine and a bad comic where the Hulk beats up Wolverine; it’s a matter of intention and technical skill on the part of the guy drawing it—whether he knows how to direct your eye from panel to panel and how to emphasize the important beats in the story or not. So I read these things all the time, and I reread them. And I love them.
This year for whatever reason I thought I’d spend at least a few weeks documenting literally everything I read in comics terms, and telling you about it. This is a partial accounting of what I’ve read since the beginning of the year—probably not even that long ago, honestly—and will get more thorough as it goes on. Let me know if you like it.
—Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston: Like, I suspect, absolutely no one else who glommed onto this book, I have no strong opinions about Jeff Lemire, but was all in from the jump as soon as I heard Dean Ormston was doing the art. I adore Ormston; I think he’s one of the most talented people working in superhero comics and I wish he’d draw absolutely everything. I was horrified to see he’d suffered a cerebral hemorrhage before the first issue of this book shipped but gratified to subsequently learn that, unlike quite a few of his contemporaries, Lemire wasn’t going to abandon his partner and move on with someone who could work to his pace; the series has a lot of great work by Ormston, and I look forward to picking up more. It’s an extremely fun Outer Limits-style sci-fi-mystery book, with a slowly unwinding plot and solid characterizations. It looks so unlike any superhero book you’ve read that when it takes a conventional twist or turn, the counterpoint of the art is so strong that it feels fresh and interesting. Anyway, I’ve only read the first volume but I’m sure I’ll pick up more.
—Rat God, Richard Corben: A terrific horror story. Just top-tier stuff. It iterates the Lovecraft story, Shadows Over Innsmouth, in which the protagonist visits a town where everybody seems to be slowly turning into a frog, except with rats, and a protagonist who is very clearly drawn to resemble Lovecraft himself.
—Edgar Allan Poe’s Shadows on the Grave, Corben: More great work from Corben and occasionally Rich Margopoulos, who lends him a hand with scripting duties. Some of these stories are only a few pages and some are twenty and thirty pages long but they’re all amazingly beautiful and some of them are quite clever; the best is his Masque of the Red Death.
—Haunt of Horror: Edgar Allan Poe, Corben and Rich Margopoulos: An earlier Poe collection by Corben, this one in black and white. A spottier collection, with the page count bulked up with reprints of the original text of the Poe stories and poems. Some of these are good and at least one, a resetting of Poe’s poem Israfel in majority-black gangland, that is incredibly cringey. In both collections Conqueror Worm is a real standout. There’s a second Haunt of Horror mini in the same format, all Lovecraft stories, that I’m anxious to track down.
—Vic and Blood by Corben and Harlan Ellison: As with the Marvel Poe and Lovecraft collections, this adaptation of what is arguably Ellison’s best-known original work reprints the text of the original stories, in this case with gorgeous black-and-white spot illos by Corben. They’re worth the price of admission; the supposedly main attraction, I have to say, is not. It’s less that the adaptations of the Ellison stories aren’t good—they are, very, in fact—and more that they’re not produced from film but from scans of the old comics pages, and there’s no color correction and in most cases you can see a faint outline of the page border where it’s been printed on the paper. The darks are all way too dark and Corben’s art is shadowy anyway, so it’s just kind of an orangey-brown mush. This is put out by Byron Preiss’s iBooks, a tiny little publisher that did a bunch of Harlan stuff, presumably to his ridiculous standards. If you like Ellison, Borderlands did a complete edition of his stories for these characters—all prose—with a nice Corben cover out shortly after Ellison died.
—Invisible Woman by Mark Waid and Mattia de Iulis: A fun spy romp by Waid, very predictable but nicely paced and with pleasant computery art by de Iulis. I really like Waid; I’m surprised this book didn’t get a higher billing when it was solicited and shipped. The Adam Hughes covers are lovely. Waid’s recent Ant-Man and the Wasp mini is a similar experiment, far more successful by every measure. Waid does sci-fi really well; here he has a spy story with extremely silly sci-fi trappings and it feels a little vague.
—Hellblazer: Hard Time by Corben and Brian Azzarello: A really nicely done one-off arc announcing Azzarello’s run on Hellblazer, which is well-thought-of. The story mechanics are clever and the plot is interesting, and Corben is a genius. Azzarello’s dialogue tics are kept to a minimum here, but the elephant in the room is the absolutely appalling racism and homophobia throughout the book. The villain is a big-dicked black prisoner who rapes a femmey white boy all day and his motivation is that he wants to rape Constantine. There are jokes about dropping the soap and all kinds of incredibly dumb, dumb, dumb 90’s edgelord comedy. As a Corben completist I guess I liked the cartooning—the way Constantine works magic in the story really is clever and it has some scary moments but it’s such an obvious relic of the period, in the same ways as Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s odious Preacher, that I can’t recommend it unless you can still stomach the worst excesses of that book.
—Ultimate Comics: X by Jeph Loeb and Arthur Adams: Jeph Loeb is a solid comic book scripter. It took me years to see this; he does things that really piss me off, like quote punchlines from movies in his dialogue, and there’s a generic quality to many of his plots, with a couple of exceptions. But he knows exactly what artists like to draw, how to tell a complete story legibly and compellingly, and how to use captions without overloading a page. His stuff is never talky and it’s almost *always* beautiful, and for a few years at Marvel, the company just let him have whoever he wanted to work with and they did amazing work. This little X-Book about B-listers forming a new team after the death of the rest of the X-Men is fantastic—cleverly structured, speedily paced, and just eight tons of fun to read, in no small part because Adams is just one of the most accomplished cartoonists alive. I can’t tell you how much I like looking at his work; I wish to goodness his older stuff like his Monkeyman and O’Brien miniseries was back in print. Anyway this is one of those comics that’s going to be easy to find used; I recommend it.
—The Ultimates: Thor Reborn by Loeb and Frank Cho: Let’s be honest, The Ultimates, even the “good” years under Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch, was an extremely silly book that blatantly ripped off Warren Ellis’s run on The Authority but with more swearing and cleavage. Loeb’s work on the title varies pretty wildly but this book, a cheesecakey romp with artist Frank Cho, is honestly my favorite of his stuff in the Ultiverse. It’s so stupid but its raciness isn’t especially sexist and its nihilism is honestly kind of bracing. I also really enjoy that he makes Cap a hidebound old dork.
—The Ultimates 3: Who Killed Scarlet Witch? by Loeb and Joe Madureira: A really nasty little book with a ton of big crowd-pleasing fight sequences, and one (along with Ultimatum, which I read a few days ago; see further down) that Loeb apparently hates so much he won’t even talk about it. Loeb’s son Sam died of cancer at 17 a few years before and you can watch the quality of his work just plummet over time after that happens, I believe in 2004, a few years before this. He seems to have pulled himself out of the doldrums by the time he writes Ultimate Comics: X but this one is really embarrassing. I’m hot and cold on Madureira’s art; on the one hand it’s fucking absurd and the women all have ridiculous-looking spheroid boobs and the men have muscles on their muscles, but it’s so extreme it’s kind of fun, almost a parody of itself. Anyway, aggressively sleazy, a little bit fun in spite of itself for how unapologetic it is about crapping on superhero fans, and kind of unpleasantly sad given how clearly Loeb is working out his personal issues.
—The Ultimates: Omniversal by Al Ewing and Kenneth Rocafort: A reboot-ish of the Ultimates in the “real” Marvel Universe without any of the old team’s sleazeball antics, instead written with an enormous sense of scale. The book does really fun things with Galactus, a character I’ve always loved, and Rocafort’s art is just eye-popping. Absolutely beautiful layouts and rendering, it’s just lush. It suffers a bit from getting too meta without a larger point to make, but the cosmic stuff is so fun it’s hard to resent. In the second volume, Rocafort gets an assist from a much less accomplished artist, which is very annoying—I wish Marvel would just give these guys an extra two weeks to catch up rather than interrupt the story with six pages by a penciler with a totally different style—but it’s mostly A1, especially Christian Ward’s fill-in issues, which are every bit the equal of Rocafort’s art on the main story. A reason I have a soft spot for the old, occasionally nasty years of MAX and Ultimate Universe stuff is that it’s so aggressively off-model; with the Disney acquisition, all those shenanigans are over and everything is squeaky clean and PG-13 at most. In a lot of ways, that’s a bad and kind of sad thing, but in others, it pushes writers and artists to find better ways to tell stories, and this is one of the latter. The Rat is a terrible, malign influence on our culture, but that doesn’t mean everything that comes out of its maw is worthless.
—Planet Hulk by Greg Pak and Carlo Pagulayan: A genuinely terrific story I’d never made the time to read until very recently, despite its sitting on my shelf for at least months, possibly years. I have generalized good feelings toward Greg Pak, the writer, but am not a completist the way I am for Warren Ellis or Alan Moore, and I never quite dug Carlo Pagulayan’s art, which is kind of workmanlike. But having buckled down and read the whole thing I can honestly say it’s a wonderful book, self-contained to a laudable degree for a Marvel comic, with great characters and a moving arc and a swords-and-sandals style plot with all the trappings of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. And, of course, because it’s the Hulk, it’s tragic, which is probably why he’s my favorite Marvel superhero. And it has a couple of chapters by Gary Frank, an artist I really love.
—The Court of Owls Saga by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo: A profoundly annoying thing about DC’s New 52 line of comics, which in hindsight had a lot going for it, was how stubborn the company was about cross-promotion and crossover stories. The crown jewel of the ill-fated relaunch attempt was the Batman book, but the first story arc was at least two volumes long and one of those volumes was filled with bullshit that no one in the world wanted to read. DC has finally rectified this with a new paperback issued through its Black Label imprint, which reprints the first 11 issues of the New 52 Batman with exactly none of the annoying sideline adventures that clogged up the story. Capullo’s art is just unbelievable. His run on the title is such a gift. I’m going to sit down and read the whole thing soon; it’s so good I’m considering dropping too much money on the enormous omnibus.
—Cromwell Stone by Andreas: When I was a little kid with no friends in fourth or fifth grade in Western North Carolina, I basically lived in junk shops, sorry, “antique stores” in Black Mountain and the unincorporated community outside its borders, Swannanoa. My crap emporium for a few years is now a store for skinny happy people who like to go hiking, but once it had a great little corner filled with mildewed sci-fi paperbacks and a couple of short boxes of comics. Among these comics was the first Cromwell Stone story, issued in English as a one-shot from Dark Horse, and it scared the hell out of me. I read it over and over again. I did not know what “Lovecraftian” meant or who Lovecraft was, despite his being quoted on the title page, but it was a kind of horror I’d never read before and I absolutely adored it. The sequels, reprinted in a new edition from Titan Books, are just as good as the original, and legible at the new edition’s absolutely mammoth trim size. Each is done in a slightly different medium: The first is largely pen and ink on paper, the second appears to have a long section on scratchboard, and the third has big passages in charcoal. It’s gorgeous, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
—Familiar Face by Michael DeForge: I have never liked Michael DeForge; my opinion has always been that you can be a glib miserablist or a lazy minimalist but both at once is a bit too much to take. I’m pleased to report that this book is both very inventive narratively and really beautiful; it’s also a very astute criticism of The Way We Live Now. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. It’s also really, really funny. Now I have to go make sure I haven’t been misreading the author’s other work.
—Ultimatum by Loeb and Michael Finch: Hahahahaha this book is DISGUSTING. It caused quite a stir when it came out but basically, the plot is that Magneto brings about a 9/11-ish terrorist disaster because he’s mad at humanity over the death of his son and daughter, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Then the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants go on a rampage and kill a bunch of superheroes, and the body count eventually includes Thor and The Wasp and Wolverine and so on. It’s just way, way, way over the top in terms of violence, so extreme that it’s very hard to take seriously. That didn’t stop people from taking it seriously, of course—lots of folks got super mad about, for example, The Blob eating The Wasp’s intestines and saying that she “tastes like chicken” (on a splash page, no less). Anyway, the exaggerated, theatrical violence is ridiculous and stupid—Dormammu squeezes Doctor Strange until his eyes bug out and his head pops—but the way the women characters are handled is indescribable without using the word “misogyny” and they get tortured and ripped up and almost-raped so much that it’s really hard to take and the book just ends up seeming loathsome on balance even if you don’t take the desecration of corporate superheroes terriby seriously. This was a big crossover event—highly publicized with an artist assigned to it who does a lot of fancy rendering, and with so many tie-ins there’s two big deluxe editions compiling them all. It’s kind of still worth reading just because Finch is a surprisingly good cartoonist on top of being a crowd-pleasing Image Comics-style over-enthusiastic hatch-shader (also just a crazily nice dude. Stacked bald guy with sleeve tattoos; I’ve seen him sign and sketch for literally hours as the line to meet him stretches down Artist’s Alley for table after table. He did a Dark Phoenix for me like ten years ago that I really love). Loeb has written very few comics since this; there’s an Avengers/X-Men miniseries a few years later and he finished up a Captain America story with Tim Sale to go with the rest of his absolutely lovely “Colors” books, neither of which I have read. I hope he found peace; this is the work of a guy in a lot of pain.
—World War Hulk by Pak and John Romita, Jr.: The sequel to Planet Hulk, which I wasn’t sure I wanted to read since I’d enjoyed the previous volume so much and this one looked like it would not be much more than a book-long fight, with art by a guy I’ve loved since childhood who has been phoning it in a bit recently. Anyway all that was true, although I would put this just barely on the right side of the JRjr-is-tired divide (his Superman book with Frank MIller is firmly on the wrong side, FWIW. The best thing he’s done in his late career is his Eternals miniseries with Neil Gaiman), but the writing is terrific, mega-fight or no mega-fight, and a plot point I’d thought was a little clumsy at the end of Planet Hulk turned out to be a plot thread, and pays off really beautifully in this book. To some extent it reminds me a lot of Scott McCloud’s tabloid-sized Jack Kirby parody Destroy!, one of my favorite comics, about the ridiculous extent of the property damage inflicted by superhero battles, but I gotta be honest, I loved it.
—Starr The Slayer MAX by Corben and Daniel Way: This one I’ll cop to special-ordering through eBay. Way is a very gifted writer; I don’t know if they just inserted dick jokes and sexism by editorial fiat when they greenlit the MAX books but this one veers between the same kind of juvenile dipshittery that plagues so much of the MAX line and a couple of legitimately funny jokes and a very clever storyline with, of course, brilliant cartooning. It’s so performative about its stupidity that it’s hard to recommend but it’s great work from Corben.
And my pull list:
The Green Lantern
New Mutants (Hickman scripts)
Hellboy and the BRPD (Mignola scripts)
Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen
Doctor Strange, Surgeon Supreme
Star Wars: Darth Vader
The Batman’s Grave
Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child