Writer, Mark Millar, and artist, Frank Quietly, earned reputations as two of the most exciting and popular creators working in comics over the last decade. They’ve both created Eisner-nominated comics, including The Authority, which they worked on together. So their first creator-owned work, Jupiter’s Legacy comes with a great pedigree. But does it deliver on the promise?
Not immediately, but there’s enough ambition in the violent superhero soap opera’s first trade paperback to keep me excited for the next book.
I don’t review comics I don’t like. There’s so much great stuff being written I don’t want to waste my attention on the mediocre stuff. So let me first say that this is a well-crafted comic. The characters want things, the plot chugs and the art is fantastic (nobody in comics draws greasy hair like Quietly).
Maybe the coolest thing that the big two comic companies do is create continuity across a large comic book world. In the DC universe, for example, if Superman picks up and moves a car while fighting Lex Luthor, it’s possible that later that day Bruce Wayne might get stuck in the traffic created by the misplaced car. Dozens of stories drawn and written by a diverse but unified group of authors make for a huge, densely populated world.
And, while some of the main roads of the DC and Marvel universes would be familiar to all moviegoers and children’s Halloween party attendees, cul-de-sacs are inevitable. Less popular characters attract their own devotees. Weird heroes and villains like Dazzler or Stiltman never need to be retired in a world where Batman has been in prime fighting shape for 80 years.
One such weirdo is The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, a confident, optimistic squirrel-human-mutant-chimera with an army of squirrel friends/assistants/mentors. If that sounds to you like a slight or goofy idea for a comic, I agree. The character was introduced in 1991 – and, while that is a long time ago for us, what with Michael Jordan then battling the Lakers for his first championship, in comics, the landscape was set and most of the “good” superhero animals were already taken: Spiderman, Catwoman, Batman, even, deeper cuts like Wolverine had been taken 18 years earlier.
In the story, written by Ryan North and drawn by Erica Henderson, the creators lean into The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’s goofiness. The character design lacks the clichés common to Superheroes. Squirrel Girl is not overly muscled or part of a creepy sex fantasy (cough, Wonder Woman, cough) she’s a normal looking teen aside from the tail and squirrel teeth. Henderson’s round cartoony style sets the tone for a breezier more fun book.*
The story for this Trade is a fish-out-of-water comedy about a superhero who talks to squirrels, crossed with the traditional supervillain-of-the-week. The superhero is in her first weeks of college. The bad guys are always vaguely insulted at the idea of having to fight a C-list hero. For her own part, Squirrel Girl doesn’t think she’s C-list. She’s a strong female protagonist, not in the boring sense of a bland over-achiever or sensible straight woman. She’s interesting and lovable precisely because she’s not nearly qualified enough to take on the challenges she jumps into headfirst.
But best of all, this comic makes you laugh. In continuity, Squirrel-related heroics lend themselves to wacky adventures – and the jokes play. This is the perfect book for a comic fan to read to a kid, but I’d also recommend this to anyone who wants a funny superhero book with a light tone.
*So many comics are horribly overwrought, it’s enough to drive you to review kids comics.
The Private Eye is a book about anonymity. It’s a future noir that centers on a paparazzo instead of a detective. The story takes place in a post-internet world where one generation ago, all of everyone’s personal info was made public causing the world to give up the social media and web browsing to protect their personal lives. People take their privacy so seriously that they wear strange masks to hide their faces.
Marcos Martin draws a beautiful, deeply strange world with creature-like characters and vehicles. Martin who did such great work on Daredevil creating the backgrounds and cityscapes of hell’s kitchen, is beautifully suited to the project. The future L.A. the story imagines is colored in saturated brilliant shades from Munsta Vicente. But the reason I picked this book up is Brian K Vaughn. His book Saga is probably the best on-going comic book in print.
I want to say as little as possible about this book, not because it’s easy to spoil, but because it’s impossible to recreating a beautiful comic like this in prose is. It might be better to say it’s as good of an LA noir as has been written in decades, even if it is half dystopian SciFi. It reads clear and fast like a potboiler, but what sticks with you after the book is done is the world. I’d recommend this book to anyone.
The physical version of this book just became available in December. The work was originally published online at panel syndicate via the pay as you go model. It’s a lovely execution with long landscape pages, thick paper, that give the art the room it needs to breathe.
This post should be the first in a string of Trade Waiter posts. Look for a post on another of the great Brian K. Vaughn books next week.
I don’t know that I remember when newspaper comics were important or good. I read Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes and The Boondocks (published in the last gasps of the medium) but I think they were already in reprints or collections. Most of my memories of newspaper comics come from my parents explaining how important they used to be.
But, if there were an alternate timeline in which Sunday comics hadn’t sunk with the newspapers, in that world, everyone would be reading SuperMutant Magic Academy.
This book is sweet, subtle, and smart. If you miss a joke, it’s not because the humor’s not in there, it’s because the jokes are delicately constructed and reward close attention. SMMA’s characters are careful refinements of the classic archetypes. They have a unique vision of superherodom laid over top of them. A more real version of super powers, that’s not about fighting evil but instead concerned about how to be an artist or what it’s like to have a gay crush on your straight best friend.
Jillian Tamaki’s story doesn’t capture the entire high school experience, it tackles a very specific high school experience and that makes it so much more compelling.
I wish I could write an excellent reading list every week but recently I haven’t been reading the best stuff. So here are other bits of cultural content to be gobbled up in between healthy doses of booky goodness.
George Strait Strait Country – The songs on this album are too reasonable and come from too rational a position to be written by any musician I know. Much less a young country mega-star in the making. It’s not just unpretentious it’s a better reflection of how relationships really are. Most of us aren’t trapped in the closet of another man’s bedroom. A much more common situation is one of the two partners wants to go out on a Friday night while the other one wants to stay home. He’s not trying to be a wild-eyed rambler, he’s just trying to keep himself and his wife happy.
Idea Channel – This PBS YouTube channel embodies all the best parts of nerdiness. Idea Channel brings a thoughtfulness that only a truly committed fan can employ in a discussion of cartoon dogs. It’s intelligent about things we might usually be stupid about. Best of all it’s funny enough and accessible enough to make those discussions engaging.
Saga – This is the prettiest, strangest take on Romeo and Juliet I have ever read. In this comic book, the Capulets have horns and the Montiques have wings, and in the midst of their interstellar war a baby is born with one parent from either side. Brian K Vaughn who writes the story has written a lot of critically acclaimed comic books and some episodes of the show Lost, he’s funny, and he keeps the story humming along. Fiona Staples was a relative newcomer to comics when the series started, she is now a star. Her characters have expressive faces, and her worlds are strange and pretty when they’re not gross. This book is pretty. Did I say that already, just the color of the covers make the comic books lovely to have in your hand.
Also, there’s a great talking-cat sidekick. If you like sidekicks or talking cats, you should pick this up.
Manhattan Projects Volume 1 – This is the first collection of the ambitious and twisted stories of the imagined rivalries and conspiracies of history’s greatest geniuses. It’s scary and well put together and the story is big, big. The second volume has actually come out already, but I think it may be starting to come off the rails. With luck, the third volume can make me look like an idiot for ever doubting. But for now I say, read the first book, if you like it enough you can try the subsequent chapters (some people even like Children of Dune).
The Economist Videos – If you like to keep up with world events, but hate to read (how did you find this blog?), you may enjoy these free videos from the Economist. They cover a wide swath of material, from current fiction to upcoming elections. Also, you get to see the crazy facial hair that dudes who edit the Economist rock. I can just see these weird mutton chop dudes grilling the titans of commerce on their plans and policies.
Vi Hart – These are the personal and fascinating musings of a math genius who hates math class. For instance, a strange and divergent discussion of Fibonacci numbers and what they have to do with the asymmetry of pineapples and the inaccuracies of Sponge Bob Square Pants. Vi makes videos that cover the parts of math I never even got next to in the course of an education that only the privileged classes get a crack at. And that makes it fascinating. It’s not easy stuff but it’s beguiling enough that it pulls in your attention. Vi Hart exemplifies the best aspects of the medium of YouTube and that is the ability to communicate, unencumbered by collaborators or expense.
Adventure Time – Sweet, silly and short. This is the kind of show where they periodically change the genders of the principle characters. What? That’s not a kind of show. Shows don’t do that. Oh, I guess that means Adventure Time is the Bee’s Knees.
Craphound – Cory Doctrow is good at talking and thinking. The last reading list had one of his books on it. He gives talks a lot and I never get to go to them, but most of them end up as podcasts on his excellent blog craphound.com
In honor of the upcoming C2E2 comic convention this weekend I thought I would put up a quick post about comics. I love comics and comic culture, but it can be intimidating. There are so many stories, and fans who have dedicated so much time to them, that it can seem like a lot of work just to check something out. To make things worse, the world of comics is full of terms nobody else uses. To remedy this, I’ve created a short glossary of words and phrases used in the industry.
Sequential Art – This term, which I first came across in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, refers to any kind of work where images are collected in sequence and show the passing of time. This could be a Spiderman comic or it could be a series of frescos telling a biblical story.
Graphic Novel – A graphic novel is a novel told in a single book through words and pictures, such as Blankets, or Watchmen
Ongoing Series – An ongoing series is a comic book series that has no predetermined end point. It’s a serial that generally comes out every month, like Amazing Spiderman, or BPRD. Sometimes abbreviated to “ongoing.”
Miniseries – A short series of comic book issues that tell one story. Not part of an ongoing series.
Maxiseries – A long series of comic book issues that tell one story. Not part of an ongoing series.
Issue – A soft-backed magazine-style episode of a comic. Issues are often 18-22 pages long.
Continuity – The over arching story of a character or universe that ties many comics together. If Spiderman breaks his arm in Amazing Spiderman and appears in a Captain America book with his arm in a cast, that is an example of a continuity between the two ongoing series.
Penciler – The first visual artist to draw the story. Someone who creates the initial drawings of the comic, generally with a pencil.
Inker – The artist who goes over the art of the penciler with the darker ink line.
Colorist – The person who creates the color palette for the comic, filling in any colors for the book.
Trade Paperback – Comic book series are often collected into larger volumes. These books often collect five issues into a single, soft-cover, trade paperback. This term is also sometimes abbreviated to “trade.”
Trade Waiter – A person who prefers to read stories collected into trade paperbacks, rather than read individual issues as they come out.
Fanboy – A term for zealous comic fans. Often used pejoratively to describe fans that are obsessed with continuity and averse to change.
Creator-Owned – Creator-owned comics are original content with characters that belong to the artists and writers who create the comics. They are generally made outside the two largest comic companies, Marvel and DC.
Work For Hire – This term exists in contrast to creator-owned work and refers to a penciler, writer, or other artist who works on licensed properties for a company. For example, any original comic work on Star Wars would be work for hire, unless the penciler was George Lucas.
If you think of any terms I have left out please let me know in the comments. I would love to make this a bigger and better resource. If you would like more comic book content you can check out some of the reviews I have done at World’s Strongest Librarian.
“The Bigger and More Obvious the Flaw the Better” – Interview with Jason Aaron (Week 11 – Book a Week)
Born in Alabama but currently living in Kansas City, Jason Aaron is the comic book writer, co-creator behind the gritty crime thriller Scalped. Earlier this year, he announced that Scalped (which has already run four years) would end its story and its run at issue #60. During its run of over four years, this story of reservations, casinos and meth has been nominated for the Eisner and Harvey the two most prestigious awards in comics.
Aaron also writes Wolverine, The Incredible Hulk, Wolverine and the X-men, and Punisher Max for Marvel. Both Hulk and the new title, Wolverine and the X-Men, launched number one issues November 2 the week Newcity got to talk to him. We started the conversation by asking how he felt about those two comics and the response they had gotten that week.
How’s the response been to the books that came out this week?
I am really happy. Both books seem to be getting a great response, especially X-Men.
Yeah, I enjoyed that book myself. It’s a new direction for Wolverine. He’s wearing a suit and running a school, instead of just carving people up with those claws. Is it fun to do something new with Wolverine?
Sure, that’s one of the problems with Wolverine. He’s been around for a long time, he appears in a lot of books, he’s been in a lot of different kinds of situations, it’s hard to find something brand new to do with him. I love the chance to put him in a situation we’ve never seen before, especially one he’s not comfortable in.
It’s cool to see how you have this rebellious character that has to deal with bureaucrats and such. How do you keep Wolverine in this interesting new world and keep him kicking ass?
Well, I am not changing who Wolverine is. I’ve been writing Wolverine for about as long as I’ve been in comics and I just came out with one of the darkest Wolverine stories anybody’s ever done.
It’s not that I’m trying to neuter Wolverine or change who he is or what people have always enjoyed about him. It’s just putting him in a different environment.
In some sense, it’s an evolution of the character and we’re watching him embrace the new responsibility that he’s never had before but he still going to be the guy he’s always been. If anything, he feels like it’s only more important that he’s going out and doing what he does. Keeping problems from ever making it to the doorstep.
Bringing up that story with the dark ending, (Wolverine’s Revenge, a story that involves Wolverine unknowingly killing his illegitimate children) do you purposely try to tell very different stories and stretch the character?
With a character like Wolverine, sure. He’s one of those characters that you can put in lots of different kinds of stories. Just in the Wolverine stuff I’ve done in the last few years, you can see that I try to do a lot of different genres and tones–very different sort of situations.
You can’t do that with every character, he’s one of those that you can and I am always going to try and take advantage of that.
With the #1 issues, how do you make sure they’re accessible?
I am always trying to do that with anything I’ve done. Going back to my first big Marvel gig with Ghost Rider. Ghost Rider’s got as convoluted and complicated a back-story as any character in comics. It was a struggle to make it fresh and accessible without throwing out everything that had come before. And I always try to do that with everything.
There’s no secret recipe, there ‘s no special formula. I’ve been reading comics for years but. even I, don’t remember the back-stories and all the history of most characters.
You don’t just completely rewrite history you got to understand that other people have written these characters before you and other people will write them again after you’re gone. And you’re just kind of a caretaker of these characters. You’re not the be-all-end-all.
There’s no trick to an issue #1? It doesn’t have to have X,Y and Z components?
No, I don’t think so. I’ve written a lot of issue #1’s that are all pretty different from one another. It just depends on what kind of story your trying to tell
In your other #1 this week, the Hulk story, you have the Hulk separated from Bruce Banner (the hulk’s human identity). How did this idea, get percolating?
It was just me wanting to do a new take on the Hulk-Banner dynamic. I wanted to do something that was fresh and accessible to people who hadn’t been reading Hulk the last several years but still honor that core dynamic that has driven Hulk stories for decades.
Let’s shift gears and talk about Scalped, is it true that you’ve been writing Scalped for as long as you’ve been in comics?
Yeah, pretty much. It wasn’t the very first thing. I won a Marvel Talent Search contest and the first thing I wrote was a short little Wolverine story and the first 22-page comic I wrote was The Other Side for Vertigo, but Scalped started coming out alongside The Other Side or it may have been two issues afterword.
Now, 53 issues in, do you feel excited to be putting this thing to bed and moving on to other characters and projects or is it hard to be putting aside this opus you have been working on for several years now?
I am certainly not bored, it’s not that I’m bored. I still like writing these characters. But it is exciting to be wrapping things up and bringing these arcs to their end point. Telling stories I have had in my head for year now, I am excited for that.
Once I get to the end and realize I don’t get to write these characters anymore, it may be a little sad or surreal. But for now I am still excited.
How many issues ahead of us are you?
Just a couple.
Are you loyal to an original outline or, as you’re writing these issues, do you find yourself saying, “Well, now that I am writing it, the story should take this turn or contain this detail?”
Sure, that always happens and I don’t think you can be beholden to an outline that you came up with years ago just because you did come up with it years ago. For the most part, I stuck pretty close to the way I had the ending planned out. I’ve had the ending for most characters mapped out pretty early on in the process, and I’ve stayed pretty close to that, but I always try to leave myself room to go with things as they come to me as I’m writing.
After Scalped wraps up at issue 60, do you have anything in the works that would be creator-owned or away from the whole capes and cowls world?
Yeah, you’ll certainly see me do more creator-owned stuff. Probably not until Scalped wraps up. But as long as I’m in comics, I want to be doing creator-owned work in some capacity or another.
I love what I do at Marvel. I’m very happy at Marvel but I will always have my hand in creator-owned work as well.
In terms of writing a crime comic in this gritty world where horrible things are done to people, how do you get your head into these characters? How do you write these folks?
Those are the kind of characters I’ve always been interested in as a writer and as a reader, the bigger and more obvious the flaw the better. That’s the stuff I’ve always been attracted to.
Those kind of tortured characters are the ones I gravitate toward. Those are the kind of characters that are at the heart of noir. Characters who are flawed and oftentimes realize what their flaws are but still can’t help but succumb to them. Often, you know how things are going wrap up and you know they’re going to be bad but you want to stick around to watch the train-wreck that’s going to happen.
In some ways that’s what Scalped is. There are twists and turns but it’s not a book that’s going to dazzle people with plot mechanics. It’s very much a character-driven book and I think that’s what people have latched onto and it’s why we’ve been able to do 54 issues. People love these characters as much as Guerra (penciler for Scalped) and I do.