What I’ve Been Reading

I’VE JUST BEEN MAINLINING COMICS for the last few weeks and I figured I’d drop some reviews here, both to mark time for myself, and in aid of any reader who’s seeking interesting stuff.

Monsters is copyright 2021 Barry Windsor-Smith.

I’VE JUST BEEN MAINLINING COMICS for the last few weeks and I figured I’d drop some reviews here, both to mark time for myself, and in aid of any reader who’s seeking interesting stuff. This is a free post, so if you can spare a donation, I’d be grateful.

MONSTERS by Barry Windsor-Smith
Barry Windsor-Smith is one of the capital-G great superhero comics artists, an incredibly technically proficient draftsman whose work is always rendered to the hilt, with gorgeous, full backgrounds and an incredibly keen sense of depth and movement in his action sequences. He’s been effectively AWOL from the comics world since repackaging and updating the stories from his Storyteller anthology series from the 1990’s into big hardcover graphic novels, which are a lot of good fun; since then, apparently, he’s been at work on a gigantic 365-page graphic novel, written, drawn, inked, and lettered entirely by the man himself. It is one of those works of profound monomania you sometimes get in comics, up there with Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing Is Monsters and Dave Sim’s Cerebus; I’ve seen people refer to it as “long-awaited” but that wrongly implies that people were waiting for this specific book, when it’s closer to the truth that Windsor-Smith, a hugely popular X-Men artist who could probably have sustained a comfortable living drawing variant covers and selling head sketches at cons for $1000 apiece, basically evaporated amid rumors of a graphic novel project — one of several; there’s a Superman story he’s supposedly still working on and he still hasn’t finished Paradoxman— and then showed up seventeen years later, tome in tow.

Monsters began life as a 23-page one-off about Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Marvel hero The Hulk, which is sort of where it starts in its current form; the story follows Bobby Bailey, a dead ringer for a pre-Hulk Bruce Banner, who wanders into a shady MKULTRA-style government program that ends up making him into a big Frankensteiny critter in possession of, we are noisily informed, a great big dong. Then, for the duration of the book, Bobby flashes back to his childhood, where pages from his mother’s diary provide narration for his sad tales of Bobby’s encounters with his WWII vet father, who has seen such horrors during the war that he maims Bobby during one of many beatings and hits his wife on the regular, eventually getting drunk and killing everybody over Thanksgiving dinner before the cop who has a crush on Bobby’s mom bursts in, shoots him, and saves Bobby’s miserable life so that it can be further ruined and ultimately ended by the government after an aimless childhood.

Knowing that this was originally a proposed issue of The Incredible Hulk leavens all this bullshit quite a bit; that was always the deal with superhero comics. Yes, melodramatic tragedies befall these characters but also they go on to have amazing adventures in space or whatever. Here, the domestic abuses and period drama are just sort of baffling. Must we really wallow in this poor kid’s degradation for page after page? I guess so. Windsor-Smith spent so many years on the incredibly beautiful art that it feels impolite to say so, but the book is too long and would have benefited greatly from an editor. He wants to craft a great mid-century American tragedy, but we’re not in the mid-century anymore, and Windsor-Smith isn’t American. His narration for—and, frankly, conception of—Bobby’s angelic mother, Janet, is pure England, despite the effort to extract all the idiomatic Britishisms from it.

That would be forgivable if Windsor-Smith were less intent on marrying John O’Hara-style domestic realism to sci-fi pulp Nazi psychic dumbassery; I love both of those things and can imagine a good story that uses both, but here they go together like peanut butter and aioli. To pull off a good story of The Unexplained, you have to take the idea of psychic phenomena seriously enough to suspend your reader’s disbelief, and to pull off a good story of prosperity constricting the human animal, you have to delineate the real world so thoroughly that the protagonist’s spiritual escape is impossible. In Monsters, spiritual escape from ectoplasmic hooey is impossible, and the emotional crescendi Windsor-Smith tries to play often land with a plunk and I couldn’t shake the feeling that on some level the author was not wholly kidding about all the precognition and Jungian collective unconscious stuff.

With all that unfortunately said, I’ll happily admit that I liked the psychic crap much more than the aspirational serious-ism. Windsor-Smith writes dialogue too much like his Uncanny X-Men collaborator Chris Claremont to give his characters’ exclamation points any emotional heft, but he has a wonderful gift for the oblique and the just-out-of-sight in his works of sci-fi, and his unparalleled draftsmanship grounds it all very firmly in a world that seems just next to our own. There’s a great piece of grimdark 80’s-style WWII-inflected sci-fi in here somewhere, and while it’s partially buried under the punishingly detailed scenes of domestic abuse, it doesn’t lie so deep that the book isn’t worth reading. I love Windsor-Smith’s art, and I’ll keep reading his comics, whether or not I find them perfect.

VELVET1 by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting
Brubaker and Epting are probably best-known for their run on Captain America, which is good, but not nearly as good as Brubaker’s work at Image with Sean Phillips, and this, I guess, is something similar to an effort to bring Epting into that fold, which I would say succeeds in high style. There’s that great frisson a reader gets from reading to the end of a Marvel comic and going “Oh shit, it’s Doctor Doom” when he shows up at the cliffhanger on the last page, and that’s not a thing indie creators can do without investing a huge amount of narrative energy into establishing characters and then letting them lie fallow for long enough to surprise you by popping up again; you have to write at incredible length to pull it off—George R. R. Martin does it a lot, which is one reason people love his books—and having a superhero universe world with all that convenient backstory, which most of your readers have absorbed through high-octane retellings in TV or movies the way people used to absorb the Bible, makes the work of getting a pleasant emotional response out of your reader a lot simpler.

But one thing an over-reliance on that crutch can obscure is how fun it is to start from ground zero with all the confidence of one of those corporate comics, and Velvet is a book that does just that. It has a shocking cameo from a major historical figure who might as well be Doctor Doom, but in my humble opinion that’s the least interesting part of the book; I was much more taken with Epting’s incredible renderings, which make even the silliest trappings of this high-tech Steranko-style spy story seem realistic and gritty. Comics are great for a lot of reasons, but a favorite of mine (and one that is often cited, so pardon me for using a near-cliche) is that the budget is infinite. You can set the story on a spaceship or in a bar or under the sea with a cast of dozens or hundreds or thousands of people or aliens or Peterbald cats. This is a sexy super-spy adventure on a tier with one the Mission: Impossible movies, starring Velvet Templeton, a thin-lipped and dry-witted middle-aged woman—a thing I don’t think I have ever seen on the screen, because it’s just not the sort of thing producers greenlight. But that’s fine, because all this needs to get greenlit is Brubaker and Epting and what look like hundreds of man-hours of inking and scripting.

Epting is working digitally here, I believe—a lot of the really talented adventure-story guys and gals are doing digital finishes over pencil or ink roughs because it’s so much faster—but it’s hard to tell because whatever he has mimics brushwork so beautifully. There was a period when “computer art” meant something that look like the weirder parts of The Lawnmower Man (please check out Batman: Digital Justice, it’s hilarious) but now there’s a whole range of textures and effects available and the results here are remarkable.

It’s a light, clever piece, smooth reading a way that suggests a ton of effort on the part of the authors, and I loved it.

1. The series originally shipped as comics, then as trade paperbacks, and finally as the “deluxe edition” linked above, which is both the most attractive and biggest version, and also the cheapest. But you can buy a comic or two or the first paperback to see if you like it, if you prefer.

RECKLESS and FRIEND OF THE DEVIL by Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Brubaker again—I got interested in him after reading one of his newsletters the other day and picked up his new project with Phillips, an artist I always have time for. I have to say, Brubaker gets better and better. The thing he’s doing here is so simple I’m shocked it hasn’t been done successfully before: It’s a series of stand-alone detective graphic novels a la Sue Grafton or James Patterson. The stories don’t build on each other but the characters who survive recur: Ethan Reckless, our hero, Anna, the gal Friday who works with Ethan out of a dilapidated movie theater, and Frank, the pal from Ethan’s FBI days who gets him police reports. The setting is the early 1980’s, but the two mysteries are both pure Raymond Chandler; gun appropriately to my head, I’d say I liked the writing in the first book a touch better and the art in the second. Both are terrific but Friend of the Devil felt a bit close to an arc in the pair’s Fatale, which I really enjoyed.

The art here is fascinating: Phillips repeats layouts throughout, opening each chapter with a long panel at the top of the page that goes all the way to the edge of the paper. When Ethan takes a missing-persons case or reads a personnel file, Phillips draws a borderless splash with images from the new character’s life layered over one another. It’s beautiful work, instantly legible but always novel and unusual, and the daring colors by Jacob Phillips (Sean’s son) give the work an exact sense of desaturated SoCal sunlight.

DRACULA, MOTHERF**KER! by Alex de Campi and Erica Henderson
This is one of the most beautiful comics I’ve ever read, with a fantastic story that’s basically a Giallo movie set in 1974 L.A. There’s a lot that I read and have broad thoughts on; how it interacts with the form and who it’s for. This is not one of those books. The story is about a sleazy photographer who sells pictures of dead bodies to the tabloids and finds himself ensnared by Dracula’s various friends and enemies, but I can’t really do it justice with description; it’s written visually and you have to see it. Henderson’s colors just vibrate off the page; her layouts and pacing work beautifully throughout and every spread is a new surprise. She says in the book’s back matter that she laid out all the pages as two-page spreads, and it paid off beautifully. It’s a comic book, for consumption as a codex. Her monster design is just unreal; Dracula is not sexy or alluring, he’s horrifying and scary in a way that looks like he ought to be a boss in a From Software RPG. Henderson is one of my favorite artists alive; I have two commissions by her, a Betty & Veronica and a Ma Hunkel, that I’m inordinately proud of. But even knowing her art well, I had no idea she was capable of this. It’s a terrific double bill with Emily Carroll’s When I Arrived at the Castle. Highest possible recommendation.

Ito is one of those horror masters whose work will probably inspire bad dreams long after his death. I had read Spiral, his awesome, shockingly weird book about the deaths in a small Japanese town, and I’d read The Enigma of Amigara Fault, one of the scariest short stories ever written, which is collected here. I wasn’t sure I wanted to start another novel-length work by him (Amigara Fault is also collected as supplemental material in Gyo, which is two volumes long), but I love horror shorts, so I picked this one up, and I’m glad I did. The stories are all solid but the first one, about an agoraphobic guy with a crush on a pretty girl in a town where lonely people are being horribly murdered, might be my favorite; there are also two adaptations of short stories by Edogawa Ranpo, the pen name of Taro Hirai, a mid-century Japanese mystery and horror writer who revolutionized weird fiction and localized a lot of his Western inspiration by incorporating pathbreaking English-language authors into the very Japanese anxieties in his own work. (Say his name out loud.) The one about the woman who’s afraid somebody lives in her armchair is perfect Ito fodder. You can see Ranpo’s influence on Ito in the original, ridiculous, but screamingly disturbing hook for the story, and the adaptation makes everything scarier. Good book.

BLACK HAMMER2, vols. 1 & 2 by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston
I’d picked up the first volume of Black Hammer a bit ago and put it down; it felt a little conventional or something to me, and it looked like Ormston’s health was going to keep him from drawing the rest of the book. But then it turned out he’d completed a second book-length arc and I figured reading the first one would probably be fun. It was! Lemire is a good slow-burn writer, and the world he’s created is very interesting. Briefly, a superhero team gets trapped in some kind of pocket dimension or alternate universe (I’m sure it will turn out to be more interesting than that) and has to live as normal people; the whole team are roughly analogous to a bunch of second-tier DC Comics characters from the 1960’s, which is a period I have a lot of affection for; they also have contemporary twists or reversals I generally found really compelling. There’s a mysterious space traveler who’s kind of insane, a lonely gay alien, a middle-aged woman trapped in the age of a super-powered kid, a hard-luck boxer type a la Wildcat or the original Atom, and a Black Superman analogue whose death is part of the secret event that trapped everybody.

This kind of Silver Age-style derivative stuff was throw-a-rock-and-you’ll-hit-one common a few years ago. It had largely fallen by the wayside in part because it’s been done to death, often by people who are literal geniuses by like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison and then various passengers on their coattails. But the other factor is that comics readers are simply younger than that, now; nobody remembers the old Silver Age superhero comics because nobody bought them on the newsstands as children. Today’s kids and young adults think of superheroes as massive transmedia properties and comics as one of but a few vessels for them. So Lemire’s instinct to go weird is a great one.

I really love Ormston’s art. He uses very thin lines and great big shadows, and the combination of them makes his renderings of monsters and otherworldly horrors that much more uncanny and interesting to look at. So much of this book is domestic drama that Ormston’s gifts aren’t always used to their fullest, but Lemire wisely salts the whole thing with flashback sequences and hints as to the nature of the mystery that give Ormston a chance to really flex. So far, the payoff has been interesting; I’m curious what the next two volumes, which I believe complete the first big sequence, will reveal, and when I learn, I’ll post it here.

2. Same deal as Velvet, except that the Dark Horse deluxe library editions are more expensive than the Image ones, but they’re also much larger and include extra material.

THE TWELVE by J. Michael Straczynski and Chris Weston
Another book I sought out for the art: Weston is a British artist whose best work to date is his big maxi-series The Filth with Grant Morrison; it’s a fantastic book and pretty much everything you may fondly remember about The Invisibles without the dreadful hamfisted racial and sexual anarcho-progressive politics we all worked so hard to forget.

The Twelve is a straight superhero book; a solid, self-contained mystery story set in the Marvel Universe among down-at-heel fourth-tier superheroes, none of whom I had heard of before reading the book. It’s a very self-conscious riff on Watchmen (also a murder mystery initially set among obscure DCU heroes, until DC balked at some of the harder-core stuff Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons wanted to do with them and made them revamp everybody so they were legally distinct from Captain Atom and The Question), which is frankly a little shitty of Straczynski, who wrote some of DC’s horrible Before Watchmen prequel comics and was notoriously callous about the company’s poor treatment of Moore and Gibbons.

Anyway, it should come as no surprise that The Twelve is not as good as Watchmen, but it is pretty good; the resolution of the central mystery is a genuine surprise and the characters are nicely delineated. It’s eye-rollingly sexist in places and the delicate politics of Jewishness in the forties is, ironically, handled much better and more subtly by Moore, who is not Jewish. The art is really top-notch; it’s a little ironic, though, that Straczynski got to do what Moore never could, namely write his opus using company characters, and the resulting work didn’t even leave a dent on their obscurity. The story came and went, and now it’s a pleasant diversion, where Watchmen is and always will be a watershed.

This is a funny book; I have a few gigantic “artifact” or “artist’s” editions of comics, which I love for their super-HD reprinting of enormous pages of comic art on which you can see brushtrokes and correction fluid and editors notes and occasionally dedications to fans who bought them at conventions. Usually, those reprint selected portions of a comic; this reprints the entirety of David Mazzuchelli’s art for his Born Again story arc on Daredevil. It even includes text bubbles and captions so you can read the whole story that way, and as someone who owns a couple pages from this period, let me assure you that the little pieces of paper on which those bubbles are drawn have long since come loose and left big orange stains on the art.

This is the first comic art book I’ve picked up that also reprints some of the overlays used in production; it’s a fantastic choice and I loved flipping the translucent paper over to see which parts were drawn on the paper and which textures and ink block were applied to a sheet of plastic and then xeroxed. I believe Fantagraphics’ enormous Original Art by Daniel Clowes also does this, but I can’t justify dropping the $200 on that and this is a surprisingly cheap paperback. Highly recommended.

I reviewed Jupiter’s Legacy for NBC, which is based on a comic book I really like, and it occurred to me that I also usually like Mark Millar’s comics, despite his having a lot of unpleasant conservative political opinions, and that he seems like he goes out of his way to treat his collaborators well, so I thought I’d pick up a few of his recent efforts and see what I thought. Nothing below takes more than thirty minutes to read but I have to say the batting average is appallingly high. Even the old edgelordy shit is pretty fun. Because they’re so pithy, I’m going to try to do these reviews as small capsules.
The book I wanted to like the most but ended up liking the least, though it is reasonably fun. It’s very much Dog the Bounty Hunter in Space though I enjoyed the way it fit in with the other MW titles. Bianchi’s art is always gorgeous but most of the other collaborators are doing the work of their careers, and this is just not up to his usual standard, though it’s still better than 95% of everything. This book also has the ignominious distinction of using a cutout of a Frank Quitely variant cover as back cover art rather than reprinting the full drawing inside the book, something I cannot forgive.
MPH with Duncan Fegredo
I really loved this one, about an inner-city kid who discovers a cache of drugs that give you super-speed. Fegredo really goes for broke and Millar’s script is quite po-faced; you’re never sure whether he’s making fun of the extremely earnest protagonist or on his side, or both. Probably both. The payoff is really clever.
THE MAGIC ORDER with Olivier Coipel
Probably the best script in the bunch, and the one that felt the most like it was set up to be an ongoing series of some variety. Millar is usually a sci-fi guy, but his facility with urban fantasy worldbuilding is a nice surprise. Coipel is the most traditional of the artists Millar uses, and it’s great to see him on something that’s not superheroes.
KICK-ASS: THE NEW GIRL with John Romita, Jr.
I picked this up with a bit of a groan; the original Kick-Ass, about a shitty high schooler who becomes an obnoxious superhero, is not my cup of tea. This spinoff, about a veteran mom who comes home from the war and decides to rob drug dealers, was a really pleasant surprise; it was also fantastic work from Romita, who does the occasional phone-in job, as on his and Frank Miller’s big Superman: Year One not long ago. This is better in every way, both than recent Romita work and than Millar’s original idea for the series. There are subsequent volumes but they’re not written by Millar or drawn by Romita, so I haven’t read them yet.
HIT-GIRL IN COLOMBIA with Ricardo Lopez Ortiz
This is as close to the old Millar as anything I read; it’s part of his most successful franchise, the Kick-Ass story, and it’s very much about blowing things up and looking badass and tittering at the misbehavior of our protagonist, an adorable little girl. The script Is okay. But Ortiz is a delight; I’ll be picking up whatever he does next.
SPACE BANDITS with Mateo Scalera
A close second to Huck, Space Bandits is easy to love. Scalera’s work is messy and weird throughout, and Millar’s story about a pair of con artist women screwed over by their ex-partners is the kind of hook that feels engineered in a lab to keep you reading. Ties in with Sharkey the Bounty Hunter, interestingly, and hopefully there will be more of both series.
EMPRESS with Stuart Immonen
Another good title with another great artist, also set in the Millar space universe, this time revolving around a tyrannical space monarch and his wayward wife, our heroine. Immonen’s range is immense and I think I like his painterly stuff on, say, Superman: Secret Identity a bit better, but it’s still very much worth reading.
The oldest of the titles I read, with the weakest script, but also with unimpeachable art by Dave Gibbons. I was surprised at how fun I found the story of a British kid plucked from the lower classes to become a posh secret agent, despite being occasionally annoyed by it.
HUCK with Rafael Albuquerque
This was my favorite of the lot. Basically a Superman story, and Millar’s Superman stories are some of his best work. Albuquerque’s almost-caricature style works perfectly for a story set among regular folks in Middle America, and the hero is just lovable.

NEXT TIME: Rain Like Hammers, Billionaires, the rest of November, It’s Life as I See It, Adventureman, The Neil Gaiman Library, more!

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Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is samthielman.com, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

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