Monday, January 07, 2019

22 Comics I Read in 2018

I don't have a good way to count individual, single-issue comics that I've read over the year, but I also read a bunch of graphic novels and collections. I mentioned in the overview the other day that Bill Watterson's The Complete Calvin and Hobbes was both the longest book I finished (it's three volumes) and the most liked by other Goodreads users. There's nothing to say about the strip that the world doesn't already know, but I was reminded that Watterson is a brilliant cartoonist who's equally excellent at both humor and warming hearts. Reading the series 23 years later, though, I was struck by his observations about culture and how little has actually changed. Social media has amplified some ugly aspects of human nature, but Calvin and Hobbes is a powerful reminder that our biggest problems have always been there.

I also started Charles Schulz' Peanuts archives with The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 1: 1950-1952. Early Peanuts is so awesome. Charlie Brown isn't yet the loser he'll become; he's just one of a group of kids who enjoy each other while occasionally giving each other a hard time. He's an equal member of the group and often an instigator in teasing and mischief.

Initially, the group is him, Shermie, Violet, and Patty (not Peppermint; the other one whom nobody remembers these days, but recognizes when they see her). And Snoopy is there of course, but he's not clearly identified as Charlie Brown's dog until later. He begins as just sort of a neighborhood dog whom everyone takes responsibility for.

Schroeder, Lucy, and Linus are all introduced in this volume (in that order). They each come into the strip as a precocious infant or toddler and then quickly grow into about the same age as the other characters until Schulz decides he needs another younger character and brings in the next one. It's fun to see baby Linus and Schroeder, but it's even more fun watching baby Lucy. She's a high-spirited handful from the start, but not the crabby fussbudget that she'll eventually grow into. The cartoons are often laugh out loud funny, but always sweet and of course well-drawn.

I read several Marvel Masterworks volumes last year, starting with Atlas Era Jungle Adventure. I got partway through the first volume, remembered that I'd read it before, and my memory was that it doesn't get any better than the first couple of stories. I love jungle adventure and I love female characters, but the Lorna stories are especially sexist. She falls for a horrible chauvinist who disrespects not only her, but explicitly all women at every opportunity. The text specifically calls him her "friend" and pretends that this is a normal, healthy relationship. It's gross. The art's pretty good, but not great enough to carry me through the rest of it.

After that, I dug into the early Marvel superheroes, starting with the first three volumes of The Fantastic Four. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's work on it was as imaginative and exciting as everyone says. It was thrilling to finally read the introductions of Doctor Doom, the Skrull, Puppet Master (and with him Alicia Masters), Impossible Man, the Watcher, and of course the reintroduction of the Sub-Mariner. There's also the first meeting between the Thing and the Hulk, which was super cool.

The constant sidelining of Sue Storm got tiresome, so I still look forward to seeing that change in future volumes. There's a panel in Volume 2 where Reed defends Sue's value to the team by talking about how she keeps up the morale of the male members. Yuck. "Different times" and all that, but it's a huge distraction for me. Volume 2 wraps up with Fantastic Four Annual #1, which is a cool way to close. It's a huge, exciting story in which Sub-Mariner has finally found his lost people and leads them in an invasion of New York City. That battle has some truly exciting moments, even by today's standards.

Then Volume 3 stands out for including the FF's portion of arguably Marvel's first crossover event, though it wasn't heralded that way. It's a sprawling story around the Fantastic Four, the fledgling Avengers, and even the mysterious, new team known as the X-Men as they try to figure out what to do with each other as well as the random destructiveness of the Hulk and Sub-Mariner. And it's quite good.

Speaking of the Hulk, I read the first volume of his adventures, too. Jack Kirby's version is my favorite look for the character and all the art in this collection is a joy. There's one non-Kirby issue, but that was drawn by Steve Ditko, so it's great, too. What's interesting about these stories is seeing Kirby and Stan Lee figuring out how they want to handle the character. He's gray in the first issue, green in the rest, and Bruce Banner's transformations are triggered by everything EXCEPT his emotions. It starts as a nighttime change and by the end of the collection it's something that Banner and the Hulk control with a machine (although an unpredictable one that seems also to have a negative effect). There's also a weird issue or two where the Hulk is mind-controlled by Rick Jones. I'm looking forward to reading other volumes and seeing how long it takes to settle into a status quo for the series. It's all over the place in the beginning, but that's not a complaint.

And finally, for Marvel Masterworks, I finished the first volume of The Avengers. It was a great idea for a series and super fun for the first several issues. The status quo changed constantly with the Hulk's leaving and coming back and leaving again and being chased by the other members and then Captain America shows up... But the series settles into a rut for the last few issues collected here. Once Baron Zemo and the Masters of Evil show up, they keep coming back with various other villains as allies. Captain America's angst and declarations of vengeance against Zemo are especially wearisome.

Over on the DC side (though they weren't DC comics at the time), I read a couple of collections featuring the Captain Marvel family of characters: The Shazam Archives and The Shazam Family Archives. Fawcett's Captain Marvel has been a favorite character of mine since watching the Saturday morning live action TV show in the '70s. He's got an awesome costume and I love the concept of a younger person (a teenager in the TV show; a young boy in the comics) turning into a Superman analog by saying a magic word. This was my first time reading his original adventures.

CC Beck's art is lovably simple, but exciting. That's the highlight here. And just the joy of seeing the same villain, Dr Sivana, reappear over and over again in spite of being constantly defeated. He becomes an awesome archenemy just from sheer, relentless repetition.

Unfortunately, that repetition backfires when it comes to the tone of the collection. The villains' schemes are mostly fun and inventive, but all the stories are the same kind: secret villain has scheme, Billy Batson investigates, uncovers villain, and defeats them as Captain Marvel. They'd be fun read a month at a time, but they were hurt by reading together in a collection like this. I'm curious to get to stories featuring Tawky Tawny and some of the other crazy supporting cast, but hesitant to pick up the next volume. I decided to try some Captain Marvel Jr and Mary Marvel instead, which led me to Shazam Family.

I was initially disappointed to see how heavily skewed Shazam Family, Volume 1 is towards Captain Marvel Jr. I like Mary Marvel much more, but she's only got the one story in the collection. And sadly, there is no Shazam Family Archives, Vol. 2.

But even though it was a much deeper dive into CMJ's early adventures than I wanted, I had a ball with those stories. I even liked them more than the early adventures of Captain Marvel himself. Mac Raboy's realistic art style was way ahead of its time, making CMJ's comics look more like they were created in the '70s than the '40s. And even though the stories rely heavily on two particular, recurring villains (Captain Nazi and Mister Macabre), the plots and settings of those stories vary enough that I never grew bored the way I did with the Captain Marvel volume.

The final collected volume I finished was Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan: The Jesse Marsh Years Omnibus Volume 1. Sadly though,  I couldn't finish it. I expect to struggle through a certain amount of racism in old Tarzan stories, but it is so prevalent in these tales and often coming directly out of Tarzan's mouth, which is not something I'm used to. Marsh's linework is quite good though, so there's some enjoyment to be had just flipping through the drawings.

Finally getting to graphic novels, I started the year with the first two books in Mike Maihack's fun Cleopatra in Space series: Target Practice and The Thief and the Sword. I enjoyed Maihack's webcomic with the same character and premise, but that was a very light adventure and I wasn't confident that the printed version would have the emotional weight I wanted from a graphic novel. It does though. Target Practice is not a collection of the web strips and Maihack knows the difference between the two formats and makes the right changes.

The web comic made sure that there was an action beat or gag on every new installment/page, where the graphic novel is an immersive experience. It gave me the time I wanted to get to know Cleo, her environment, and her friends, and to relate to her predicament. It's still action-packed, super cute, and very funny, but now all of those things are surrounding solid characters.

The Thief and the Sword is a strong follow up. It has all the same charm, plus it expands the universe. I wasn't crazy about the new, thief character, but he's potentially redeemable. My only complaint is that it ends on a cliffhanger. That's not exactly a dislike though, because I'd wanna read the next one anyway.

Koma: The Voice of Chimneys is a short volume about a young chimney sweep who meets a monster. It's building to something bigger, so it was impossible to tell what I'm going to think of the plot, but I like the main character and the art is fantastic. The design of the creature is both spooky and affecting. I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes.

You know I'm all about the pirates, but while Barracuda, Tome 1: Esclaves is beautifully drawn, I don't like any of the characters and the tone is oppressively dark. I'm not reading any more of this one.

I've always admired Rick Geary's linework, but this is the first book by him that I've read. Most of his stuff falls into the category of True Crime, which isn't a genre I enjoy, but this is full-blown fiction featuring one of my favorite actors as the detective. It's an engaging riddle and though I was a little disappointed with the solution itself, I was thrilled with the way it was revealed. I would love to see Geary create more Louise Brooks Mysteries.

Lovely art. Fun characters. It's a bit densely packed for my taste (and eyesight; small panels) and I don't feel like Delilah is as much a character as an idea for a character, but I quite like Mr Selim (the Turkish lieutenant) and I'll be reading the next volume.

Lovely art depicting deep characters in a romantic setting. But while the characters are varied and complicated, I'm not actually all that interested in most of them. Or maybe it's the absence of a central plot that I'm reacting negatively to. I wonder if subsequent volumes begin to develop a stronger story with character arcs. I'm just not decided on whether I want to find out enough to continue the series.

I've been a fan of Kickliy's work for over a decade and it's been fun and rewarding to watch him grow as a cartoonist and storyteller. Perdy is a very naughty Western with great characters, intriguing mysteries, a bawdy sense of humor, and - most of all - a gorgeous visual style. As "Volume 1" suggests, it's not a complete story, but it's a satisfying read and I can't wait for the next installment.

I read the first volume in single issues and was captivated enough that I just bought the rest of the series in collected volumes when I had a chance at a sale. Terry Moore's drawing is always exceptional and he set up a great mystery in Volume 1 around why a dead woman's body was left half-buried in the woods and why she came back to life. Volume 2 answers most of the mystery in order to reveal a conflict that I imagine the rest of the series will work to resolve. Sadly for me, the conflict isn't as intriguing as the mystery was, so I'm not going to rush into Volume 3.

But Moore's skills in creating rich characters and mood are great enough that I enjoy being in the moment with his stories even when I'm not pulled forward by the plot. I will eventually come back and read more.

Butch Guice's art is always great. He has a grounded, realistic style that's just as convincing when he's depicting mythical creatures as when he's drawing everyday people and objects. He's the perfect artist for this kind of Harryhausen-influenced story. And the events of the story are pretty great. There's a mystical island filled with awesome creatures to run away from.

The characters are fine, but they're fairly standard archetypes and no one stands out as a favorite so far (though the villain shows signs of being more than he seems). It's only the first volume, so I'm hopeful that the characters grow on me as they continue to be challenged by the island and their mission on it. It's a good start and I'll keep reading.

Finally, I'm a big fan of Bryan Talbot's steampunk, talking animal mysteries and the way the characters develop and the situations build on each other. I'm an even bigger fan when he's clearly drawing inspiration from James Bond as he is in this volume. Can't get enough of this series.


Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

i don't think I knew anyone in college who didn't own at least one Calvin and Hobbes book. Its the James Dean of comic strips. Short run, huge impact!

The occasion glimpse I see at a contemporary comics page reminds me of how much I need to get back into reading Peanuts.
Seeing a classic Peanuts strip side by side with a current Blondie strip, its day and night of how to do a gag thats based entirely on dialogue. Charles Schultz's art style is deceptively simple that you can easily miss how brilliant the staging is in his storytelling. Sounds like its fun to start from the beginning and see the "early installment weirdness" too.

Recently I picked up collections of "For Better or Worse" to try and branch out my comic strip reading. The softer, gentler art style and slice of life "rawness" is remarkable change of pace from most of the comics I would typically read.

Marvel Masterworks. Now you're talking my language. Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four was my crack cocaine at age 12 and I keep saying "I'm gonna re-read that whole run!". I have all the issues on my computer but I feel like this needs to be an analog experience so that I don't feel the need to rush through it. These shorter, colorful Masterworks version sound like the way to go.

In retrospect its amusing that Hulk's solo series was canned so early and that he's living as a guest in other titles like the Avengers since thats exactly what happened in Hulk in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Cleopatra in Space! Starring someone who is legally distinct from David Tennant as Doctor Who from the look of it!

Michael May said...

Ha! I never noticed the resemblance of that character to Doctor Who, but the hair and his gadget certainly bring that to mind. His personality is quite different though and he's not a time traveler.

One of the things I love about Bill Watterson is his willingness to walk away when he was creatively done. That takes a lot of guts and character.


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