BY AARON BLOCK
[At the end of every month, Aaron surveys the comics he read, celebrates the best, considers the rest, and takes stock of what it means to be a contemporary comic fan.]
As I mentioned last month, a recent cross-country move and accompanying unemployment have put me in a precarious financial situation. I’ve had to tighten the belt, and the most obvious way for me to save some money each month is to cut back on comics.
Since I started this column my list grew to about 30 titles, sometimes more but rarely less. Writing about comics encouraged me to try new books, and more than a handful of those became must-reads. And at $3 or $4 an issue, the tab starts to add up. I continued my regular reading through September, rationalizing that continuing with something I enjoyed would help me cope with a difficult move. But by October, and with no job in sight, that rationalization no longer held up.
I couldn’t bring myself to give up comics entirely, though. So I put myself on a diet of two books per week, which would come down to ten titles for the month. Looking at previous columns, I found it would be pretty easy to pick ten titles that I enjoy, and are of a consistently high quality. And if I was particularly ruthless, then picking ten books could even give me room to try a few new things.
To make it more of a challenge, though, I decided not to allow any “roll-over” comics – that is, I couldn’t refrain from buying my two titles one week in order to get four the following week. In doing so I privileged the weekly ritual of heading to the shop (the well-stocked, friendly Crescent City Comics in New Orleans – the best possible replacement for my favorite store, Boston’s Comicopia) over the comics themselves. Obviously the books themselves are crucial to the equation, and I’m not at the point of going to hang out in the shop when I’m not buying something (though I would do exactly that at Comicopia.) But if I only wanted to read, I would convert to digital or buy cheap trades through one of several online services that cater to fans who don’t have a local shop. I love the whole culture of comics, from reading the books, reading reviews, following writers and artists on Twitter, and talking to the clerks at my store. And even in hard times, I’ll hold onto as much of that as I can.
So I’m going to do something different with this month’s column. Rather than pick a Spotlight book and write One-Shots and all that, I’m going to look at each week’s picks to not only review them, but also explore why I ended up pulling them.
I picked up Action Comics #13 solely for Grant Morrison, though by now it’s become clear that this run isn’t among Morrison’s best work. Whether it’s a problem at the script level, an editorial conflict, the difficulty of working with multiple artists, or all of the above, this book doesn’t maintain his usual standard of quality. There have been some excellent issues, and when Morrison is engaged and meshes with his collaborators Action is better than most other mainstream books. So I come back each month and roll the dice. Issue 13 isn’t one of those sublime pairings, but guest artist Travel Foreman is more than game for the story, which is Morrison’s take on a Kryptonian ghost story. Morrison’s Superman is more cerebral than the character is typically depicted, and this story has him solving a puzzle in the Phantom Zone and taking on the burden of his father’s sins (another Morrisonian trope). The backup story, by Sholly Fisch and Brad Walker, is a quiet, heart-breaking tale of a boy and his dog. All in all Action Comics #13 is a fine comic, and I felt more comfortable picking it up than Swamp Thing or Animal Man, both of which are in the midst of the “Rotworld” crossover that I’ll have to sit out.
And of course I picked up Black Kiss 2 #3. In keeping with previous issues, it’s full of graphic sex and horrifying violence, all in the service of Howard Chaykin’s dark joke about humanity. The first two issues of this series felt like direct attacks on the film industry, but with issue three the target of Chaykin’s ire is less distinct. We follow Blanche and Dagmar as they perpetuate a black widow assassination scheme in Occupied Paris, and then Blanche’s attempt to find a replacement for her lost partner in 1950s Los Angeles, but neither story feels particularly angled against either Nazi sympathizers or Hollywood. But perhaps that’s the point, and Chaykin is having the joke on us and our desperation to rationalize and justify what we like.
Batman #14 was another easy pick. I love the character, and writer Scott Snyder has written some of the best Batman stories of the past five years, outside of Grant Morrison’s six-year run. Like Action Comicsit isn’t a flawless title, but even the lesser issues are still entertaining thanks largely to Greg Capullo’s art. Issue fourteen is the first chapter of “Death in the Family,” Snyder’s next long story arc that reintroduces the Joker to DC’s New 52 continuity. While Snyder sometimes has trouble sticking the endings of his stories, the beginnings are typically strong and heavy on mood, and issue 14 establishes an unsettling, imbalanced tone that suits the story’s villain. My only real hesitation with this issue is the use of Harley Quinn, who feels out of place in her new incarnation and, worse, is completely defanged by the plot.
If I were to pick a Spotlight book for October, it would be Punk Rock Jesus #4. Up to now the books have moved at a relatively steady pace, but with issue 4 Sean Murphy thrillingly accelerates all of the plots and manages to deliver the series’ lowest and highest moments in the same 32-page space. Chris, the alleged clone of Jesus whose entire life has been offered up for consumption via reality television, finally rebels when his mother is killed by the head of the media company that owns him. We see Chris’s maturation through his new interest in exercise, literature, and punk music. The central panel of a two-page spread depicting this growth recalls Murphy’s exquisitely detailed bedroom-scape panels in Joe the Barbarian, but this time, the toys and comic books that littered the adolescent’s room are replaced by stacks of records, an electric guitar, and messy bookshelves (squint to read the labels and spines and the panel doubles as an excellent “suggested reading/listening” list.)
Issue 4 is also the point where the title is most transparently a mouthpiece for Murphy’s own take on politics and religion. But Murphy maintains Chris’s voice, and those moments that threaten to veer into sanctimony develop organically from the plot (luckily, they never quite do). Even if I weren’t sympathetic to Murphy’s worldview, I’d have to argue that the title earns its strident tone. Punk Rock Jesus isn’t a comic about equivocation or ambiguity. There are clear answers, the book argues, and a little curiosity is all that’s needed to find them.
Hawkeye #3 was another lock. The first two issues were some of the most fun I’ve had reading comics this past year, so I had no reason to expect issue three would offer any less. Writer Matt Fraction has fun with the trick arrow conceit (a must for any archery-centric superhero) without resorting to irony, and employs a clever twist on a “countdown” story structure that helps speed the story along. And David Aja’s art is, of course, gorgeous, each page impeccably designed. Like with Daredevil last fall, it’s becoming difficult to rave about Hawkeye every month without repeating myself. And though I’m not yet as invested in the story as I was with that book (largely because there’s little connective tissue from month to month) I anticipate reading Hawkeyefor as long as Marvel will let me.
It’s fitting, then, that my second book this week was Daredevil #19. There were several other compelling candidates, including Wonder Woman, American Vampire, and Saucer Country, but I ended up with Daredevilfor the very reason I just mentioned: I’m invested in the story, and have come to care about the characters. Much has been made of Mark Waid’s intentionally lighter take on the character, but more than that I think Waid set out to make Matt Murdoch relatable again. The street-level take on Daredevil that’s been in vogue since Frank Miller revitalized the character in the 80s has devolved from a provocative storytelling choice to the solution to a logic puzzle. By focusing less on the crime and more on the mental and emotional state of the hero, Waid broadens the title’s appeal to a more varied readership. Issue 19 is heavy on just that kind of storytelling, as Matt begins to interrogate his hallucinations, and finds the solution in a satisfying call-back to the book’s very first issue.
Speaking of call-backs, the second half of Mind MGMT #6 unlocks an entirely new reading of the first five issues of the series. Matt Kindt loops the narrative back around to the beginning and forces a second reading, but this time with more information and a greater appreciation for the characters. The unsettling realization is that the story has stubbornly refused to move forward in six issues, but continues to grow deeper and more complex. I’m excited to see what will happen with issue zero and the subsequent volume, but I’d be happy to returning to these pages over and over, never reaching the bottom. And as an update to last month’s column, the secret code came through and the website went live, with lots of behind the scenes material from Kindt. It’s an exciting promotional concept, and an easy way for Kindt to engage his fans.
Batman Incorporated #4is another obvious pick. After following Grant Morrison’s story for six years, and with the conclusion so close, there’s no way I could pass on this title. Issue 4 is another solid entry, particularly satisfying because we finally get to see the Batman, Inc. team all together, taking on the League of Assassins. The revelation of Wingman’s identity towards the end of the book was a bit of an anti-climax, but it fits with Morrison’s concept of Batman, Inc. and adds a further wrinkle to Damian’s story arc. While reading the issue I remembered that Morrison and artist Chris Burnham teased a few pages from this issue at MorrisonCon. It’s satisfying to see them again, fully colored, and in context with the rest of the story.
I’ve read nothing but praise for Brandon Graham’s comics, particularly King City and Prophet, but haven’t yet picked them up. I’ve got no excuse for this – in fact, I passed up a severely discounted copy of King City time after time at Boston’s Comicopia, for no real reason. So I picked up the first issue of his new Image series, Multiple Warheads #1, as much out of obligation as curiosity. Graham’s cartooning is almost overwhelming in its detail, though not in the intricately line manner of, say, Bryan Hitch, or even Geoff Darrow. His figures appear soft, and he employs a fairly simple, flat line. But his scenes are populated with objects and artifacts of the world he’s created, and everything is labeled. It’s as if Graham has taken the general outlines and structures of our reality, then contorted and distressed them, added bizarre ornamentation, and filled in the rest with little jokes and references that are almost too small to notice. That “almost” is important, though, because the overlap is just different enough that it compels attention and slows the reading down considerably. I still haven’t finished the issue. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly it’s rare when a modern comic forces the reader to slow down. But I’m not in love with Multiple Warheads, as I hoped I would be.
All of the dinosaur carnage hinted at in last month’s issue is delivered in The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom #3. Writer Mark Waid balances the sequences of Cliff trying to figure out how to subdue a dinosaur with quieter scenes of Betty rationalizing her jealousy. Possibly the most interesting panels of the issue feature Betty drinking from a flask with Peevy – how often do you see a female character drinking in a comic who isn’t an alcoholic or marginalized in some other way? And artist Chris Samnee is in fine form, and deserves special mention for a beautifully designed cover. I’d say that Fatale, which I didn’t pick up this week, is more complex and involving, but The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doomis satisfying and light at the same time, which it makes it exactly the kind of comic I want to keep reading when going through a rough spot.
My love of anthologies compelled me to take a chance on Ghosts #1, the latest thematic collection from the Vertigo imprint. Previous installments of this now quarterly tradition (Strange Adventures and Mystery In Space) have been uneven, as many anthologies are, but generally feature at least one great story from a high-profile creator. Ghostsboasts an impressive masthead, with entries from Gilbert Hernandez, David Lapham, Paul Pope, Cecil Castellucci, and Amy Reeder, among others. The most notable entry is the late Joe Kubert’s “The Boy and the Old Man,” which is the legendary creator’s last work before he passed away earlier this year. An introductory note by Vertigo editor Karen Berger explains that the unfinished art was found on Kubert’s drawing table when he died, and is presented without alteration. Reading into the story of an elderly Aztec man fighting the god Quetzalcoatl for the life of a boy, we see evidence of an artist coming to terms with his mortality. But the work itself is proof that Joe Kubert was just as effective and powerful a cartoonist at the end of his life as he was in his prime.
Finally, Happy #2 by Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson, which is just as odd and funny as the previous issue. I wonder if Morrison wrote this book in part to demonstrate that his talents extend beyond meta-narratives and gonzo sci-fi concepts. The poker scene in issue 2 is a perfect example of Morrison’s control of the medium. He and Robertson build tension continually across eight pages, and keep the pace relatively quick for a scene that’s little more than a group of talking heads. And Robertson is again in fine form, particularly the brutally choreographed escape sequence early in the issue. I didn’t know what to expect from Happy #2based on the first issue, and I’d say the same is true of issue three. That only makes me more eager to keep reading.
Looking Ahead to November
Er…well, not a lot. As of this writing I am still out of work, which means I’ve had to take the next step and cut comics entirely from my budget. Likewise, I must put the Pull List on hiatus until I find a job and can get caught up with my reading.
November is the first month since fall 2002, when I got back into comics after the typical late-adolescence lapse, that I haven’t bought a single comic. It feels strange not to have even a small stack and a few empty brown paper bags cluttering up my bedside table, waiting for me to sort through them as I finish the column. There are times when I’ve wondered if reading comics had become a habit that I had yet to outgrow, but this month has shown me the opposite is true. Granted, being forced to step away from comics has made it easier to let go of titles I didn’t realize I wasn’t enjoying. But I miss the comics I really love, more than I expected I would. And I miss visiting the shop and browsing the shelves. Hopefully things will change soon, and I can start building a new pull list.