KAPTARA

Great Caesar’s ghost, I love this book. It’s the funniest thing going. I think I’ve finally got a handle on its weird, weird world: a gay astronaut crashlands on an alien world and runs into… wait for it… the Masters of the Universe. Well, sort of. The whole thing is kind of Errol Flynn-does-He-Man, which is a very strange idea, I’m sure you’ll agree, but the way it works is just really ingenious. It’s like of Saga made some sort of sense (I’m okay with Saga. Not super high on it, not a hater, but it doesn’t make a lick of sense at the moment and I’m skeptical that it will call come together. I’m still reading it, though!). Anyway, Chip Zdarsky is now in a class with Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and Warren Ellis and Grant Morrisson as a writer whose work I will read, no matter what book it’s on. What a fantastic story this is; I wish I could describe it in more detail but really all I can do is ruin the jokes. Kagan McLeod, the artist, is a real talent, too; his work doesn’t look like anybody else’s in action comics and it’s totally delightful. There’s a spread from the current issue, #5, that I kept trying to find and couldn’t; it’s some of my favorite comic art this year, and it was a good year for comic art. I demand that you all go read it immediately.

DARTH VADER ANNUAL #1

I’ve continued to surprise myself by liking pretty much every Star Wars book I’ve picked up; I just discovered that the fantastic Simone Bianchi did the second arc on the main series so I’m guaranteed to pick it up this week. I have to say the only exception to this rule is that I started Star Wars proper and didn’t particularly care for it – John Cassaday is a really wonderful artist but (as with most people) his work suffers when he’s rushed and the first arc had some horrifyingly dodgy anatomy. There’s some crazy editing going on at the new imprint (Disney took the Star Wars license back from Dark Horse last year and gave it back to Marvel): essentially every hot writer and/or artist who works for the company is getting paid a premium to work on the books – the catch is very obviously that the books absolutely must come out each month, mustmustmust, on the same week every month, no backsies. Comics have gotten kinda laissez-faire about publishing regularity, entirely to the good as far as I’m concerned, but the Star Wars books are essentially part of a massive advertising campaign for the new films as Disney tries to make the Star Wars purchase pay back its $4bn cost. And poor Jordan White, the editor on the imprint, clearly has carte blanche to hire whoever he wants and an absolutely cast-iron schedule. So the Cassaday stuff got really ugly, which is a shame given how great his work elsewhere has been. (I mean get serious) But the Darth Vader annual, written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by the great Leinil Yu, is my favorite single-issue comics story I’ve read in months. It’s highly reminiscent of the old eight-page stories guys like Alan Moore used to write for the UK anthology series. Go pick it up.

HAVE TO RESPOND TO THIS STUPID THING, SORRY

This NYT piece was just the trolliest troll that ever trolled. I liked reading this guy’s reminiscences of his own childhood collecting
superhero comics but found the article weirdly trolly on the whole.
Sure, okay, superheroes are an American idiom, but they’re an American
*immigrant* idiom. Siegel and Shuster were both born to Russian
immigrants. Kirby’s family was from Austria, Stan Lee’s is of Romanian
extraction. Gil Kane was *personally Latvian* by birth for godsakes. Beyond
that, English, Scottish and Irish writers have had some of the most
perceptive takes on the whole idea in the last twenty years (in fact
you could argue pretty persuasively that Moore, Morrison and
Garth Ennis are the three most popular writers in the genre); manga,
contrary to the author’s assertion, is incredibly rich. I mean, really?
Tezuka’s Astro Boy is just a “rip-off?” Pull the other one. Further
still, Jim Lee was born in Korea and he is the highest-ranking creative
executive at the company that created the superhero; he’s also
best-known for illustrating a book at his main competitor, called the
X-Men, which includes as prime cast members Jubilee (Asian-American),
Storm (African), Colossus (Russian) Armor, Thunderbird, Dust and so on
ad infinitum. Diversity and unlikely heroism is *the entire point,* the
whole idea of Superman is that he’s an illegal immigrant with curly
black hair and looks like a nebbishy dork who can’t get a date but kicks
the stuffing out of bullying ubermenschen at a time when people thought
that Hitler guy had some fresh new ideas. So no sale on this one. At all.

THE YEAR IN REVIEW

2015 was a very strange year in the kinds of art I love; not much I was looking forward to was worth my time and a great deal I was prepared to dismiss or avoid ended up making a lasting impression on me. Here’s what I liked a lot:

COMICS

This is primarily a comics blog, so we’ll start there. I read several books from Avatar that I really enjoyed, especially Alan Moore’s Crossed +100 and Providence, and a lot from Image, and almost nothing from DC beyond The Sandman. Somehow I remain reading several simultaneous Marvel books (Howard the Duck! HOWARD THE DUCK!) despite not really knowing nearly as much about Marvel, and I met some nice indie comics people, and then I tried writing about comics for my newspaper a little bit.

This experience was profoundly depressing, because while our readers seemed generally to appreciate it, more than once I got surprising, disproportionately furious responses from artists trying to find followings on social media and people in these horrifying little critical enclaves that think identity politics and aesthetics are the same thing. A lot of the writing in these places and by these people ends with the exhortation to “do better,” which I think is probably all that needs to be said about the complexity of the philosophical and artistic systems at work behind the thinking that goes on there.

Occasionally this writing on comics attracted very strange pitches from other comics people. Often it would simply be folks offering me a look at their work or work they publish (which I love to hear about), but more than once I was approached by people who wanted to destroy another artist, either for political slights or for misbehavior. A couple of the pitches were concerned with the state of the industry and actually had merit – there’s a lot of evidence that editors in comics act very badly around female staff and freelancers, and that’s worth covering – but often the truth was inextricable from petty grudge-holding, from self-righteous moralizing, and from omnipresent self-promotion.

The overlap between struggling artists and a critical class that scorns technical skill in favor of checklisty politicking goes a long way toward explaining why I think the state of the art is suffering when it comes to experimental and unusual work. That bothers me, primarily because that’s where the discoveries that will enrich the future of the form will come from, and its growth, at the moment, is so rapid it’s hard to keep up even as a voracious reader. I want that to continue; demanding that artists hold acceptable opinions or have some kind of quirky identity in order to get a hearing will kill all that wonderful diversity of thought stone dead very quickly.

I realize this isn’t a problem exclusive to comics, but I know more about comics than any other medium so I have more insight to it there than I do in, say, film. The most outspoken and political artist I interviewed this year was Kate Beaton and she was of course very funny about all the subject matter she addresses in her work, but she had opinions of a superhumanly brilliant variety on work ethic and what makes a good drawing.

What’s a little baffling to me is that a lot of comics people who are jaw-droppingly wonderful at their craft – Jim Woodring, to pick a name – have fascinating, compelling, sometimes devastating personal stories that they don’t really spend much time thinking about or trying to tell. They’re preoccupied with other parts of their experience that require more work to tease out and turn into art. Whereas an increasingly angry underclass seems desperate to paint everything it does as fascinating, avant-garde and dangerous, though to the untrained eye they appear mostly to be very normal (though perhaps less happy than most) people.

Here’s my perhaps less than humble opinion: politics are easy. Polishing your own life story and sharpening your moral compass on hypotheticals or incomplete information about other people’s lives is not actually a difficult process (or, perhaps, a process at all) and in fact I would argue that it doesn’t really make you a better person a lot of the time. Craft, by contrast, is very, very, very difficult, and if you devote all your energy to the former, you won’t have developed the intellectual muscles to thrust home your painstakingly honed ideas about how everybody else should behave.

You also might find that those ideas are not worth the paper they’re printed on, but perhaps that’s an argument for another time.

These comics, by contrast, are worth quite a bit. I have fairly traditional tastes in a lot of ways but it was such a rich year in all sectors of the industry you could really have just picked a direction and set off. If you like experimentation and non-narrative work, there’s a lot out there for you this year; also if you like really deep, insidery superhero comics, there were a bunch of events, as usual, and at Marvel there was some amazing stuff around (okay, in spite of) them. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle, so here’s what I liked out of a vast crop:

1. KILLING & DYING – Open the champagne for this one; it’s one of the most formally ambitious books anyone has produced in the last few years and yet it’s simultaneously as inviting a volume of literary short fiction as Alice Munro’s Open Secrets or Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts. Comics are hard to get into; they’re their own language in a lot of ways. Killing and Dying is a wonderful way station between comics and prose and it deserves attention and respect.
1a. BEST WRITING: Tomine controls everything in this book on so many obvious visual levels that it’s possible to miss how accomplished the writing is. And it is inspired.

2. BLOOM COUNTY – Berkeley Breathed’s return to cartooning at one of the worst and most embarrassing times in American electoral politics is like getting a birthday present from someone you thought was dead. Breathed is such a profoundly gifted and skeptical humorist, and his work flirts with criticizing the unpleasant parts of liberal culture while it skewers the utter barbarism of people like Donald Trump. It never fails to astonish me how calm Breathed appears to be in a world where everyone involved in politics on any level makes virtue of anger.

3. STEP ASIDE, POPS – Beaton’s second collection has her Straw Feminist characters, her amazing gives-no-fucks Wonder Woman, and strips the pretense away from Canadian history, the Brontes and everything in between. Her visual style remains utterly perfect and her sense of humor is keen and friendly, and it’s very hard to feel sad after reading this book.

4. THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE – It’s hard to tell when Neil Gaiman is going to stop writing The Sandman given how often he lets DC entice him back but I will certainly continue to read it if he keeps up; Overture is a beautiful, magical tour of the world of his character, which fits into the DC Universe in the strangest possible way, and it answers nagging questions left over from the main sequence of the series. It’s a total delight, and the art by JH Williams III is unbelievably good.
4a. BEST ART: Seriously, I cannot even tell you how visually incredible this book is. The whole thing is just a feast for the eyes. I want to mainline it.

5. SUPREME: BLUE ROSE – An attempt by Warren Ellis to reboot the occasionally great Superman pastiche comic at Image, Supreme, this is maybe the weirdest book I read all year, which makes me really happy. It’s great science fiction primarily for its devotion to the unexplained, something too many SF writers leave out in their haste to explain everything.
5a. BEST NEWCOMER: Tula Lotay, the painter who illustrated this book, is so accomplished already, despite her youth. She easily the coolest kid in the business; she likes doing stylized versions of old giallo movie posters and big watercolor close-ups of people from Tarantino films, and she’s apparently working on a new thing with Ellis; her website is here and it’s well worth your time.

***MOVIES***

Film was easier. The kinds of offbeat science fiction and fantasy film I really love were all the rage this year and I couldn’t be happier about it. A few others I desperately want to see – The Hateful Eight and Anomalisa – don’t open until the 31st, and I haven’t seen Star Wars, so I might update this list after I see them. So many people write about film that I feel pretty free to go as far sideways as possible with these picks. Enjoy.

5. EX MACHINA – A terrific, intimate sci-fi movie about the literal objectification of women: in it, a fratty roboticist makes a menagerie of hot ladies and they turn on him and his hapless assistant in the scariest possible way. The themes and sub-themes are kind of endless here, but it’s all to the good. Solid performances all around, especially from Oscar Isaac as the Smartest Dudebro, and a number of great twists, chief among them being the slow-burn realization that a robot woman might want totally different things from a human woman. Scary, robot-woman things.

4. IT FOLLOWS – What a great movie this was. A slick, spare, 90-minute horror film that relies not on gory special effects or cheap jump scares but really adroit camera work from director David Robert Mitchell. Set in Detroit, the monster follows whoever had sex with the person it was most recently following. It can look like anyone, is supernaturally strong, and only the stalkee (and sometimes the viewer) can see it, so it’s often seen in the form of an extra staggering toward the camera off in the distance. Wonderful young unknown actors, amazing visuals, and so scary it feels like it takes no time at all. Probably the most original film I saw all year.
4a. BEST DIRECTION: I can’t think of a movie this year that makes more efficient use of the camera than this one. Mitchell has you frantically scanning the background of every single scene in case there’s some detail they’ve missed that might cost the characters their lives; he’s also a remarkably gifted director of young people and manages to tamp down the natural energy you get off a 21-year-old actor (not to downplay the work Maika Monroe does here, which is stellar).

3. CRIMSON PEAK – There is a surprising friendliness to all the Guillermo del Toro movies, in spite of the gore, the rage, and the monsters. Here, in Crimson Peak, he’s made one of those period costume dramas your aunt is always telling you are wonderful, complete with opulent sets and a quivering, repressed English heartthrob (Tom Hiddleston, doing what passes for an old-fashioned American accent). Mia Wasikowska does excellent work as the heroine but as soon as Jessica Chastain shows up as the Hiddleston character’s creepy sister, Chastain just saunters off with the movie.
3a. BEST PERFORMANCE: Chastain has you craning your neck to see around the edge of the frame in case she’s doing something unspeakable in the next room.

2. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD – What an incredible-looking movie, and what a great way to tell an interesting story about revolution and rebellion in the midst of dwindling resources. Also the film is just a 90-minute car chase, which is essentially impossible to film. Of all the movies I saw this year, this was the one in which every single aspect of the film was polished, sturdy and reliable the whole way through; there’s no “most competent” award but in a year when the primary Pixar offering (the cloying “Inside Out”) sputtered at the starting line, Miller’s film was a visual feast with a narrative engine in perfect repair. A lot – too much, really – has been said about its politics, but the Molly-Hatchet-album-cover aesthetic is enough all by itself.
2a. MOST COMPETENT: Eh, what the hell.

1. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS – Jemaine Clement (the Flight of the Conchords guy) and Taika Waititi write, direct and star in what is easily my favorite movie this year, and the one I’ll go back to most often and recommend to the most friends. It’s a mockumentary about three vampire roommates and the fourth guy who kind of ruins things for them; it’s also the best-written film I saw this year, with so much happening on a bunch of different subtle levels that there’s always something else to see. The mash-up of a bunch of different vampire-lore styles is plenty of fun, especially Clement as a pervy Gary Oldman-in-Dracula type and Jonny Brugh’s turn as Vladislav, the Anne Rice-style “sexy” vampire who’s getting a little, uh, long in tooth.
1a. BEST WRITING: You heard me.

***GAMING***

From the day I bought it I only really played one video game this year and that was BLOODBORNE on PS4, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s astonishingly lovely horror RPG. Aesthetically it’s light-years ahead of horror film and the depth of its world beggars belief. For a game that is so determinedly individual, it bends toward the classical in a surprising way: its settings are decaying city, a dark forest, a haunted castle, and a university whose students have discovered the unnamable – all places you might visit in a fairy tale or an HP Lovecraft story.

Bloodborne’s monsters are often beautiful in weird and surprising ways; there’s a multi-armed angel guarding a baby monster at the end of the game, and a tragic fallen warrior-priest who turns into a werewolf near the end of your fight with him. It’s instructive how well the game’s themes play into what people are starting to call the “ludonarrative,” that is, the story told by the gameplay: in the fight with the mad priest, Father Gascoigne, for example, his transformation into a monster comes during the final third of the duel (most boss monsters in Japanese games have three phases to them). When this happens, there’s a sickly yellow light that shines up from underneath him and he shivers uncontrollably, as if in pain, as he grows and sprouts hair. This was honestly so scary that I ran away from him every time, and of course in his vulpine form he’s much stronger and faster than the player and he disemboweled me easily three dozen times. That’s when I learned that the point of the sequence was to teach the player to run toward danger – Gascoigne, as a wolf, has great long-range attacks, but can be dodged and carved up at close range with minimal effort. The game is about bravery, on at least one level, and being willing to leap into the jaws of a monster is often the only way to beat him or her. (Incidentally: this game passes the Bechdel test if you choose to play as a woman.)

Thematically there’s a great deal going on below the surface; every character who seems pure, holy, or noble turns out to be evil or insane and a few of the game’s corrupt or evil-seeming characters turn out to be, if not good, better than the “good”-seeming ones. This isn’t a Last of Us-style trick where the player turns out to be the bad guy, but the game does ask you to question why your character needs to slaughter all these monsters, especially when many seem to be human on some level and the ones that aren’t often seem pathetic in addition to being terrifying monstrosities.

I’d like to say, also, that I have beaten Bloodborne. I conquered the two secret bosses, I explored at least five of the catacombs under the city, and I’m now hacking my way through the expansion in my fabulous armor, rapier-that-turns-into-a-flintlock in hand. It took months for the main game to get old; I expect I’ll get a few weeks out of the expansion, as well.

The gameplay is unimpeachable. There’s no “easy” mode, no trick to the most difficult parts of the game, so you simply have to master it, even when it feels unabashedly punitive. There’s a squad of masochists who play through the entire game without leveling up; I could never do this but I completely understand the impulse to not just beat the game but dominate it, to find all of its secrets on the harshest of its own terms. It’s one of the richest fictional worlds I’ve ever had the privilege to explore and as a lifelong sci-fi and fantasy nerd that makes me very happy.

***BOOKS***

I liked all of these so I’m not ranking them; I didn’t read much literary fiction that was new this year so this is pretty much all SF.

THE VORRH, by Brian Catling – One of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in a very long time, with an extremely strange and unknowable world populated at surprising turns by historical figures and a big, sprawling series of subcultures in a fictional English colony city in West Africa. I enjoyed it enough that I was surprised and thrilled to learn that it’s the first book in a trilogy; much of the book refuses to answer the questions it raises and that’s fine by me, but the prospect of sequels suggests that some of its less uncanny mysteries might be solved later.

THE BURIED GIANT, by Kazuo Ishiguro – Ishiguro always surprises. In The Buried Giant, he’s managed to write a book that uses Arthurian legend as a metaphor for the nostalgia that poisons ideology, and he does it in such a distinctive, subtle way that his book’s plot twists – and maybe that’s too simplistic a term – are genuinely shocking. It’s a beautiful book, and ineffably sad in the same way that the stories of Tristan and Isolde or Arthur and Guenevere are. It is, in fact, a perfect Arthurian legend and one that belongs on the shelf next to Mallory and White.

SLADE HOUSE, by David Mitchell – I ate this book. I swallowed it whole; I think I read it in two sittings. It’s essentially an appendix to The Bone Clocks, Mitchell’s last novel, but that’s fine with me. I loved The Bone Clocks, and I particularly liked Mitchell’s sketches of suburban Englishmen and -women in various kinds of trouble. Slade House brings back all of that and it demonstrates again Mitchell’s unmatched skill at getting his story up and running within pages and then refusing to let it stall or even slow down for a moment. It’s hard to write in period like that; it’s even harder to write in several period like that. It’s a lot of fun.

THREE MOMENTS OF AN EXPLOSION, by China Mieville – This book is a sea change for Mieville, whose short fiction didn’t really do it for me in Looking for Jake but whose novels I really love. This time he just knocks it out of the park; I’d read some of the flash fiction (Three Moments of an Explosion, 4 Final Orpheuses, The Crawl) on his great blog, but I was unprepared for how good a lot of the other stories are. He’s so good at finding an inexplicable, insane idea and then poking at its logistics. What would happen if there were literally mountains in the clouds? What if you could catch made-up diseases? There’s the occasional misfire here but as always with Mieville the sheer volume of great ideas is easily worth the investment of time and money, and more besides.

TRIGGER WARNING, by Neil Gaiman – I love Neil Gaiman. He’s never anything less than readable, and his short stories are his best work. I’d call this one better than Smoke and Mirrors and perhaps not quite at the height of Fragile Things, which is my favorite of his collections, but it’s very, very good. The Sleeper and the Spindle and “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” demand multiple rereadings and half a dozen others are worth going back to whenever you just want to be entertained or moved. And there’s an American Gods story at the end, which is a treat.

DAREDEVIL HITS THE SPOT

1. Mark Waid’s DAREDEVIL is finished. It’s one of the best runs the book has ever had, up there with Frank Miller in the 70′s and 80′s (and I understand people really love the Bendis run from the early aughts, though it leaves me a little cold). What’s interesting about this run is that it could just as well be called Marvel Comic Book. It’s an engagingly PG take on the character with reliably lovely art from Chris Samnee, who is of the J H Williams III school of innovative panel layouts, and so it hums right along at a reliable pace for years, never stalling out or overheating, until Waid has Daredevil’s final showdown with the most interesting villain of the run – an erstwhile hero, naturally – pan out in exactly the right way, despite impossible odds. One of the qualities that makes Waid such a clever storyteller is his ability to stack the deck against the hero and then solve the problems he’s created in a satisfying way. It’s easy to either give away the coming solution or beggar belief with a ludicrous denouement, but Waid keeps avoiding that pitfall. Waid’s take on a Daredevil love interest, his version of Foggy Nelson, his contributions (and twists on) the villains pantheon – all of them make for a really fun, polished book, and it’s one I’ll reread. And the first villain in the run, The Spot, is one of my favorite Marvel creations in a while.

2. KLAUS, Grant Morrison and Dan Mora’s reimagination of Santa Claus is a Conan the Barbarian-style swords-and-sandals avenger, is very fun. It’s only just begun, but I recommend it already. Fingers crossed, but I think Morrison has finally stopped setting his stories in the fevered brains of characters who’ve been hit on the head or revealing the imagination is the only real superpower, so I have high hopes for this one. I really enjoyed his and Darick Robertson’s piss-take on ultraviolent superhero comics, Happy, last year; props to him for trying something similar here.

3. Here is a disappointment I visit on myself every few years: Garth Ennis, an undeniably talented comics scriptwriter, has been appallingly limited in his interests and ideas for a long time. I wish this was not the case, given how well Ennis can pull together a story and how rich his characters often are (though he often reuses them). I wish I could tell you how the things I loved about Garth Ennis overwhelmed the things that make me nuts about him, but they absolutely don’t. They are starting to get there, though.

3a. CALIBAN, an Alien-style horror story of interdimensional space nonsense, features as its heavy – the character Ennis likes best, since his work is reliably competence porn of the rankest vintage (or the first water, depending on how you feel about competence porn, and I’ll be honest, my opinion on this weird subgenre is somewhat fungible. I like Ratatouille) – happens to be a gay woman, which is kind of nice considering how awful he is about gay people in Preacher and how clumsily he tries to non-apologize for it in The Boys. Anyway, the book is violent and weirdly vindictive about people who have done nothing worse than sleep together, but it’s also pretty compelling and the central emotional relationship is wonderful. Our heroine (not the badass gay woman, a different woman on the same crew) never declares her sexuality despite the fact that the badass character is in love with her, and that, not the alien kungfoolery, is the heart of the story. I normally resist this kind of checklisty politicking by someone who’s trying to disguise his predilections but Ennis truly appears to be trying to change as a person, or perhaps to understand that he is changing. It’s quite interesting.

3b. Who’d have thought that the Crossed universe, of gross murderzombies, would be so long-lived and so consistently interesting? ROVER RED CHARLIE, Ennis’s most recent contribution to this truly disgusting universe (or his personal creation, naturally), is another improbable winner, right up there with Alan Moore’s Crossed +100 from earlier this year. I mean, I’d really like to be recommending different books to you guys. I understand that these are really gross. But Ennis seems to have a solid handle on how far he can go in these books and in this one he’s had an admittedly fantastic idea – Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey set during the zombie apocalypse. It’s often adorable, and has a happy ending, and features cute talking animals. Of course it’s also super R-rated and has some really disgusting stuff in it (no rape) but it’s a lot of good animal jokes, one after another, and if it gets a little too vile in a couple of places it redeems itself pretty handily. Also the way Ennis translates his animal characters exclamations (Dogs barking: “I’m a dog! I’m a dog!” Chickens clucking: “Shit! Shit! Shit!”) and so, you know, for the Unconventional Zombie Box Set you’re putting together, may I recommend Rover Red Charlie?

YES OF COURSE I READ IT

Because those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, this week I read new comics by Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Neil Gaiman, and I added a new section at the bottom for books that are inexcusably late.

I SAY I read a new book by Neil Gaiman. I actually read a reprint of a Neil Gaiman issue of MIRACLEMAN that uses an old JG Ballard story as a template for a kind of lateral superhero story in a very effective way. Gaiman now has a style of his own but I like him a little better as a mimic, frankly. Bitter Grounds is basically a Gene Wolfe story, Stardust reads like a long-lost Diana Wynne Jones novel, and the ghost of RA Lafferty haunts The Sunbird, probably my favorite of his short fiction. (There’s a minor character, referred to but never seen, in the Miracleman story – “Spy Story” – named Ballard).

Mark Buckingham’s art is just stunningly beautiful as always (the Tim Bradstreet variant cover is quite nice, too). Visually speaking the whole first Buckingham arc is really off-kilter and experimental and collage-y; “Spy Story” looks like every panel was photocopied and photostatted at different sizes a different number of times and the smeary, uncertain quality of the art complements the Cold War-era paranoia of the writing just perfectly.

*****

The Ellis is the final issue of his Project Superpowers miniseries, BLACKCROSS, which Dynamite is publishing. It’s pretty good; I have to say I am totally in love with this phase of Ellis’s career, which has gotten so totally off-the-charts weird I can’t understand how the books keep selling. Maybe I give people too little credit, but this and Supreme: Blue Rose and Karnak are so, so strange, which is one reason I like the much more conventional Ellis James Bond book less the more I think about it.

Colton Worley’s art is solid; I suspect him of being very young but his style is developing nicely and he took a little extra time with this last issue, which paid off. The Project Superpowers world is unique among comics publishers: a few midcentury superhero publishers that couldn’t compete with DC/Fawcett/Timely (later Marvel) and so on and went out of business without selling off their IP assets because for some reason they didn’t foresee the billion-dollar boom in superhero movies, so their characters have been determined to be in public domain. Dynamite has picked them up — Standard/Nedor is a big treasure trove of abandoned intellectual property, as is Fox Comics — and started publishing them again, despite their having made a guest appearance in Tom Strong over at DC/Wildstorm a few years ago. They have the power to transcend corporate bookkeeping, which is perhaps the greatest superpower of them all.

*****

Yes all right fine, I read DK III: THE MASTER RACE, about the plot of which God only knows. I have never found Brian Azzarello’s writing to be even remotely compelling and the notion that he was “helping” Miller on this book seemed really worrying. But I actually love Frank Miller. His Daredevil stuff is so raw and cool even now, thirtysomething years later, especially the big arcs — Born Again, Man Without Fear, Elektra, all the crazy-ass ninja stuff.

Which brings me to my next point: his execrable politics have caused many comics readers to underrate Miller as a writer, which is frankly their loss. With the exception of the main sequence Miller didn’t draw any of the Daredevil stuff he’s famous for and far more people read Elektra: Assassin and Born Again than leap in midstream to his journeyman stuff on the main title. Also Martha Washington Goes to War and Hard Boiled didn’t write themselves.

And of course as an artist he’s totally unparalleled and given how hinky his Batman writing has been in the last ten years or so I kind of didn’t want to pick it up until I heard there was a 16-page minicomic insert penciled by Miller himself and inked by his longtime partner Klaus Janson (who is good, but not as good as Miller himself, who wields inkwells like hand grenades and thickens his lines with a paint roller), so I figured I’d pick it up anyway.

It’s fine. It’s not Sin City. It treats Miller’s old Batman stuff, The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight Strikes Again (or DK2 as the DC marketing men would have it), as worldbuilding, and if you couldn’t tell from the title, the latter is kind of a goof, so pretending it’s The Lord of the Rings is a little silly.

I’ve been shocked and horrified to find a soft spot for DK2 as I’ve gone back to it. Sure, it’s eye-rolling bullshit but given the state of DC’s superhero lineup, thank God for eye-rolling bullshit. Superheroes are kind of stupid, guys. They’re loads of fun and I have boxes of superhero comics all over my apartment to my saintly wife’s quiet chagrin but they do not make any sense at all, not even a little bit no they don’t no they don’t get a job, and pretending that the nonsense of the whole exercise isn’t part of the fun and proclaiming that everyone should be extra serious about people in bat costumes after the age of about 9 stops being cute and becomes worrying.

Miller’s contributions to DKIII are great. He’s clearly got some fun stuff planned for Superman, and the daughter of Superman and Wonder Woman is a character here; she’s very interesting. The Atom, who was the best thing about DK2, is back. Bruce Wayne is nowhere to be seen in the first issue, and I just desperately hope that he’s dead, because Miller is nothing if not a vicious iconoclast and superhero comics need somebody to set stuff on fire. You used to be able to count on Grant Morrison for that sort of thing, but when he last wrote Batman at the very last minute he turned chicken. Bawk bawk.

Oh and Andy Kubert is just fantastic. DC put out a big anthology of his stuff with the coloring and inking stripped out out so you could see his bare pencils and it did not disappoint. If you love Neal Adams’ stuff for its energy and movement, anything Kubert puts together will scratch that same itch. It’s kind of a shame that he’s drawing for Miller, who is terrific but whose style could not be less fluid and graceful. Miller’s pages look like he stomped on them and the footprint happened to look like a beautiful drawing; Kubert’s look like they’re about to grow wings and fly away. So it’s a real mismatch in that sense, which is a bit disappointing, like they put the team together using sales figures rather than their eyeballs.

Here’s my suspicion about this book: Bat, tentatively, man and Superman will continue to be World’s Finest-style frenemies and they will go on and have adventures together. They will also both be roles assigned to women by the end of the eight issue series, I bet. Which I could not be happier about.

*****

I’ve pulled my post about Providence out of this, because the issue was really disturbing and I want to talk about it at greater length.

*****

Other stuff:

—Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s oddball manga-style fantasy series MONSTRESS is fun. The first issue is so heavy on the exposition it’s hard to know whether or not Liu has any idea about character yet, but it’s a very interesting, gothy, steampunkoid book with some great monsters in it and I approve of Takeda’s artwork a great deal. There are a lot of good writers and illustrators at Image but I think this is the only one with two women of color working on it? Anyway, check it out if for no other reason than that the first issue is gigantic and good for a long train ride or visit to the doctor’s waiting room.

HOWARD THE DUCK remains excellent. Joe Quinones didn’t draw the latest issue but he’s back for the next one; Veronica Fish did a great job on the fill-in, which takes place in a gender-bent alternate universe, so her issue is thematically appropriate!

—I still don’t hate PAPER GIRLS! It’s coming out super fast, which I also don’t hate. Also it owes a lot to Stephen King’s The Langoliers, which, again: approval from me.

—Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo’s DOCTOR STRANGE is the funnest. Feels like it will stay fun for a bit, too, as long as it doesn’t get messy and crossovery.

—We finally learn about the Lipstick Incident in ARCHIE #4, and it’s surprisingly touching. And it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be at all. Bravo, guys.

*****

***GIVE IT TO ME NOW***

New section! Artists don’t like to be rushed, which I understand, so to make people feel better, I am putting some of the tardiest books I ever wanted to read FIRST on this list, and then list the books in descending order of lateness. The trick is that books will not go OFF this list until I have them in my hands. Feel the scorn of my admittedly single-digit but fantastically influential readership. I’ll put more on here as I think of them and as they go AWOL.

BIG NUMBERS
LAST SEEN:
Issue #2, Aug. 1990— I’ve wanted to read this book since 1990, when Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz published two issues of what looked set to be one of the coolest series ever written. Then it died on the vine, with no explanation. Rumors abounded: Moore’s marriage had collapsed, Sienkiewicz’s assistant, Al Columbia, had taken over the book, then been so disappointed in his own work that he set fire to it. It sounds like a joke, but some of it is actually out there; it showed up in an old issue of Sub Pop magazine I have in a box somewhere. I propose somebody print it.

MIRACLEMAN
LAST SEEN:
Issue #24, June 1993 — Yeah, the publisher went bankrupt and it got stalled in legal limbo for 25 years. Excuses, excuses. This book ended mid-arc during one of the most promising runs in comics. I want it. It’s been revived and is solicited for April of 2016, which will make it the latest comic ever published.

FELL
LAST SEEN
: Issue #9 January 2008 — Warren Ellis and watercolor painter Ben Templesmith’s crazy-ass one-and-done crime comic set in an unnamed city is one of my favorite comics by anybody. It ran for 9 of 16 issues and Templesmith said in an interview that he had a full script for a tenth that Image won’t run until Ellis has a few more scripts in the can. Ellis is currently writing two other books for Image at the moment. Templesmith told me personally at NYCC last year that he wishes he could finish it. Hey, me too.

AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE
LAST SEEN:
Issue #8, May 2015 — This book is SO GOOD and it’s had fully eight issues since Oct. 2013. The problem here is less perfectionism and more that the two guys who do it just blew up as soon as it started coming out; Francesco Francavilla, blessed be he, does like five Marvel variant covers a month and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is now trying to run the entire company and the new CW show. BUT I WANT IT. I WANT IT NOW.

NAMELESS
LAST SEEN:
Issue #5, Sept. 2015 — I really like this book. It’s an outer space Lovecraft thing by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham and every issue has just been crazy and great. I want to read the last one. It has been months upon months. I get that it’s an Image book and thus irregularly scheduled but even by those standards it’s been too long. It’s on the docket for Dec. 23, which I hope turns out to be accurate. Excited to read it.

KARNAK
LAST SEEN:
Issue #1 Oct. 2015 — Warren Ellis, I love you, but you are late all the damn time. By all means finish it and make it good but this is the second issue of a Marvel comic the publisher expected to put out every three weeks. Issue #5 is solicited for January. It’s December already. Knock it off. I’m still mad about Desolation Jones.

OFF THE MAP

After a few weeks of listless, desultory superhero comics I wasn’t sure what to do with this space; write about Jughead (still excellent) and Paper Girls (still okay) again? Pretend to be excited about the new Frank Miller co-scripted Batman book, which apparently retails for fully six dollars an issue? Just get super angry about unreadable bullshit like The Darkseid War and Secret Wars?

So rather than do any of that, which all felt kind of depressing, I decided I’d cast my net a little wider, and return to some older stuff I’d been meaning to read, and see what happened. It was a good idea.

Eric Shanower and Gabriel Rodriguez’s LITTLE NEMO: RETURN TO SLUMBERLAND is one of the purely prettiest comics I’ve read in a few years; it feels a lot like the old Greyshirt strips Rick Veitch used to draw in Alan Moore’s weird, doomed anthology book Tomorrow Stories – cursory plots (Nemo falls asleep, has an adventure) accompanied by stunningly beautiful, crazily inventive layouts and finishes. One chapter has Nemo running through three different MC Escher paintings and several eye-popping two-page spreads with rotational symmetry – the top left corner turned upside down matches the bottom right corner and the dialogue in between explains how the characters get from one to the other. Added to that, it’s kind of a sweet story about a little boy who learns that little girls don’t have cooties, perfect for kids but as carefully crafted as a Tintin comic.

I’d actually never read anything by Michael DeForge until this week, when I picked up the latest issue of LOSE, #7. I can understand what the fuss is about; the longest story in the book is a really carefully observed investigation of how one woman’s relationship with her father falls apart under very strange circumstances. DeForge’s drawing style is interesting; I’m not sure where he’s going with it. It’s a lot like Chris Ware’s work in the sense that it uses its own intentional flatness against the clear depth of the characters, but DeForge’s layouts are inventive in a very different way. Big flat blocks of color and expressionless (or underexpressive) faces are quite trendy at the moment, which isn’t really something I like very much as a reader. It’s reasonably effective but Ware in particular is capital-G Great because he’s so good at finding other means to express emotion. DeForge is in this same category, but he’s clearly still finding himself, stylistically. I hope he evolves in a different direction from Ware; we only need one of that guy.

The editor of Kramers Ergot, essentially the Paris Review of comics, is a guy named Sammy Harkham, whose own cartooning work is some of my very favorite material anywhere. Harkham’s style, like DeForge’s, is simple, but his stuff is gorgeously expressive. Anyway, CRICKETS #5 is out and it’s very good; if you’d like to be at ground zero of a terrific graphic novel currently being in progress I highly recommend picking this up. It’s thrilling to read it as it’s being completed.

I’d been meaning to read Roz Chast’s CAN’T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT? for a year or so; this week I picked it up at a used bookstore while I was out on assignment, because while the subject matter made me itchy, I’ve always admired Chast’s cartoons and liked the way she didn’t look like anyone else working. It’s one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read, full stop. It is fucking astonishing. It’s so good I’m actually not going to tell you what it’s about, because that will make you not want to read it. I’m just going to say that it’s hilariously funny, it’s drawn with a level of skill, especially in the last dozen pages, that is beyond anything I’ve seen in recent indie comics, and that it’s about 60/40 comics/prose (if you know Chast’s New Yorker cartoons, you know what I’m talking about). It was shortlisted for the National Book Award. It’s on my shelf next to Watchmen, Ice Haven, Black Hole and Fun Home now.

VARIATIONS ON A THEME

One of the ugliest and frankly worst things to happen to comics in the last few years has been DC Comics’ most recent once-a-decade intra-company continuity jerk-around, currently called The New 52. The problem seems to sit mostly with upper management at the publisher, which has enforced fabulous top-down ideas like editing stories after the art is finished and changing Superman’s costume. The results have been unattractive and stupid and have driven away loyal readers by the ton as Marvel continues to sprint in the opposite direction, abandoning its house style and isolating individual books from crossovers so that a large minority of their fans don’t get pissed off and leave.

It’s taken me years to realize that I’m in that minority; I was in the comic book shop the other day chatting with one of the guys about what was new and good and I mentioned that I was annoyed all my favorite books were on hiatus during Marvel’s own big crossover, Secret Wars. “They’re not on haitus,” he said. “Iron Man and Spider-Man are both back.”

“Oh yeah,” I said, “I guess I was just waiting for Howard the Duck and the Silver Surfer.”

“Yeah, I don’t really like Howard the Duck,” he said, and then explained why: not because he thought the book was badly written or drawn, but because it didn’t add anything to the larger story of the Marvel Universe. It was extraneous, like Deadpool.

“Deadpool is dumb,” I agreed.

“He’s good in X-Force,” said the guy. “He doesn’t act retarded there.”

Let me first say that this guy, also, does not act retarded. He obviously understands that comic books are written and drawn by sentient adults with free will and their own ideas. But those things, from his perspective, are handicaps – this very nice man who also reads Optic Nerve and Kramers Ergot and so on likes Marvel Comics because the publisher is dedicated to acting as though the characters in its books have individual lives and desires of their very own that transcend the printed page.

That is sort of a nice idea, come to think of it, and it’s the reason that one of the very, very, very few books worth spending any time with from DC in the last few years is MULTIVERSITY, the big, wonky, parallel-universe-filled crossover series by Grant Morrison.

Morrison has tried often to make something new and cool out of the crossover series; in so doing, he’s probably pissed off the guy from Midtown Comics and all of his friends, because his gigantic, sweeping stories almost never have any direct effect on the rest of the DC Universe. It’s not that he doesn’t try to – Final Crisis gave it a solid shot – it’s that Morrison is A) a really individual, unusual writer with an anarchist streak a mile wide and B) a guy who takes forever to write and throws his creative weight around not to gain control over the widest possible swath of editorial decisionmaking, but (but all accounts) to avoid notes.

The result of this unusual behavior is that Morrison writes huge, personal stories that span universes and frustrate anybody who wants to tag in after he’s done; the best example of this prior to Multiversity was his Seven Soldiers of Victory, in which he took an extremely obscure set of Silver Age characters and made them even more obscure, with the help of several stunningly gifted young artists. The artists (Cameron Stewart, Simone Bianchi and Frazer Irving among them) went on to great things but the characters returned to the shelves.

Morrison has had, as per usual, a really great idea for a crossover format with Multiversity, and one designed for maximum usability by anyone who wants to come after him and try to play in his sandbox(es): Every issue of Multiversity is set in a different universe with a different set of DC-owned characters newly redesigned by a different artist, including the company’s publisher, Jim Lee, who draws a horrifying Nazi fantasia for Superman. The others – a pulp world for a team called the Society of Superheroes, starring Dr. Fate and the Blackhawks, a lengthy ultrapolitical Alan Moore-style take on the Charlton Comics characters (for whom Watchmen was originally pitched), a universe of teen heroes not much dissimilar from the company’s CW shows – all work beautifully, and differently. And this will of course be anathema to DC, which now hates everything new and different, so it, too, will fail in corporate terms.

The big collected edition of Multiversity costs an arm and two legs and looks like Victor Frankenstein’s annual report to shareholders. It’s also a participant in one of my favorite contemporary comic book trends, which is to say that it’s oversized and nicely bound and the art is even prettier than in its solo issues. The ersatz Watchmen chapter, illustrated by Frank Quitely, is probably its visual apex, but it’s a close contest.

The moral of the story seems to be that ‘eighties and ‘nineties-style grimdark superhero books are stupid-seeming bullshit and that there’s a plethora of options out there for people who still want to play in the genre without all that faux-psychological baggage. In aggregate, the standalone stories come together a lot like Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics series, which took largely the same tack. In fact it’s so close to those stories that Chris Sprouse, the artist who illustrated Moore’s own slick modernization of turn-of-the-century pulp (Tom Strong), also illustrates the Society of Superheroes chapter. It feels intentional, frankly, like a series of potshots at Moore himself, who exerts a weird kind of gravity on Morrison and seems to invade his stories pretty regularly, to the extent that, in a certain light, he was literally the villain of Morrison’s last continuity wonk, Final Crisis.

The other thing I read this week was Sammy Harkham’s EVERYTHING TOGETHER, a book of marvelously observed short stories so close to perfect it’s hard to describe without giving away things you really ought to read and experience on your own. Harkham, an offensively young power player in indie comics, is probably better known for publishing the gigantic, eccentric, expensive anthology series Kramers Ergot, which comes out every few years and changes formats each time. It’s a little harder to find, but worth tracking down for pretty much every story. Harkham has gifts for composition and color surpassing most of the field and his self-published periodical Crickets is serializing what I suspect will be the next great graphic novel, a closely observed portrait of a guy in a troubled marriage and a crummy job working on Hammer-style horror films in the 1970′s

The best two stories in Everything Together are Somersaulting, a truly beautiful, quotidian look at a teenage girl’s summer in Australia that I’ve read half a dozen times to half a dozen different effects, and Poor Sailor, a wordless adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s short story At Sea. 

And, like the story itself, I have no words for it.

MYSTERY KNIGHT

1. There’s a level on which I take comfort in comics that is probably unhealthy and harmful. Take this week’s issue of Doctor Strange, for example: there’s an untightening in the chest I can directly associate with the experience of opening the book and leafing through it, irrespective of relative merit. By which I mean it has to pass muster in some sense, but it doesn’t have to be Maus for me to uncouple from my anxieties and just read without worrying.

Less personal: The new DOCTOR STRANGE is an effort by Marvel to pre-establish a solid base of contemporary and accessible stories as the parent company, Disney, ramps up production on the forthcoming film starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and as such they have assigned a competent writer, Jason Aaron, and a gloriously talented artist, Chris Bachalo, to the book in anticipation of greater interest on casting and studio news. It’s a tactic the company piloted with Guardians of the Galaxy, a series with little–okay, absolutely nothing–in common with its original iteration but reworked with a more contemporary sensibility. The original Guardians comics were perhaps less impressive than the Steve Ditko Doctor Strange series (or for that matter P Craig Russell’s gorgeous “What Is It That Disturbs You, Stephen?” which draws heavily on Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories) but the new edition is geared specifically toward contemporary comics readers. I wish I could resent being so relentlessly marketed to, but I can’t; Bachalo’s art is perfect and Aaron’s story seems fun. I’m in. I’ll probably see the movie, too.

2. Warren Ellis is consistently one of my favorite comics writers; he’s funny and clever and his new series with a guy I’ve never heard of, called Gerardo Zaffino (there’s a solid Batman artist named Jorge Zaffino; any relation, one wonders?), KARNAK, about one of the more interesting Eternals, it’s already reasonably fun in a dour sort of way. I can’t quite tell what Zaffino has been hired to do, but I suspect it will become clear.

3. GODZILLA IN HELL has consistently been one of my favorite comics for the last four months. It’s quite hard to do licensed comics well; they tend to attract the dregs of the creative community and suffer under the thumb of the rights holder. No such trouble here: the series is largely wordless and thus a showcase for a number of brilliant artists. This month’s is merely okay; the one you want is the first issue, the one by Orc Stain writer/artist James Stokoe, who has also done a surprisingly beautiful Godzilla miniseries called The Hundred-Year War.

4. UZUMAKI (“Spiral”) is a collection of linked short stories by Japanese cartoonist Junji Ito It’s about life in a town where the citizens develop disgusting and fatal obsessions with spirals. It’s also a surprisingly insightful examination of small-town life and people generally, most of them doomed.

5. This column is about comics, but Gary Gianni has done comics. Specifically, he’s done a beautiful version of Prince Valiant, notable for being roughly as gorgeous as Hal Foster’s work on the same strip, and that is a high compliment. This is all from a bygone era, of course, which is probably why George R R Martin asked him to illustrate his A KNIGHT OF THE SEVEN KINGDOMS, as uncomplicated and straightforward a collection of heroic stories from a bygone, which is to say taking place before the main sequence of A Song of Ice and Fire, era as Martin is capable of writing. The stories recall both Fritz Leiber’s nearly-forgotten Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser books and the days of yore when an established author could pass of a collection of previously published linked stories–a “fixup,” if you’ll pardon the anachronism–equally well. Also it recalls Prince Valiant, thanks in large part to Gianni’s spot illos, and relieves chronic tightening in the chest.