Trouble with Comics

Guest Reviewer Month: Mike Sterling on The Comic Reader #212 (August, 1983)

I’d been aware of the idea of the fan press prior to picking this publication off the newsstand, of course; a letter published with my home address in a 1981 issue of Superman resulted in a slew of mailing and come-ons for conventions and fan-produced magazines and such. Plus, an early ’80s trip to a comic book store in Simi Valley resulted in my being on their mailing list, and getting their newsletter of news and comics gossip. And I’d read the slickly-produced, full-color (well, mostly color) Comics Scene magazine from Starlog Publications.

But this magazine was different.As a child I was fascinated with amateur publications. Not just comic book related ones, though it was a big part of it. But with the very idea of kids my age (or a bit older) producing their own books and magazines and newspapers outside of the “official” and respected publishing outlets. I handcrafted several comics and illustrated booklets of my own as a child, tried (and failed) to get the neighborhood kids to work together on a local newspaper, and sought out similar homegrown items.Now, the folks who produced The Comic Reader obviously weren’t kids, but this was definitely an amateur publication (though a bit more upscale than most fanzines), and I did find it for sale in the newsstand where I regularly bought my comic books at the time, so clearly this wasn’t just something some guys put together for a few friends. Why, this may even have had a print run of hundreds of copies!And like the comic shop newsletter I mentioned, there was news and rumors, but the sheer quantity of it was overwhelming! That newsletter was only a few pages long, but The Comic Reader had page after page after page of densely-packed type and the occasional cover repo and reports and rumors of forthcoming projects, and plenty of info about those small press “indie” titles that were beginning to proliferate and were attracting my attention.The Comic Reader #212 also contained what might have been my first print exposure to fandom discussions outside of the publisher-approved-and-edited letters columns in their publications…well, beyond talking about comics with my friends, which, frankly, I didn’t do too often anyway. Reading missives from folks talking, not just about a specific comic they just had to write a Letter of Comment about, but about a wide range of titles and topics in relation to multiple publishers, and how this issue of X-Men relates to that issue of Green Lantern, and how it all ties in with Hill Street Blues…well, okay, that example was stretching things a bit, but still, it was a side of fandom I hadn’t yet become familiar with. (And now, as a comics retailer and a comics blogger, I may be too familiar with it at this point, but back then, it was still all new and fresh and interesting.)

The artwork is another aspect of The Comics Reader that fascinated me. There were spot illos from humor cartoonist Fred Hembeck, seemingly ubiquitous in those days, and whose work was already familiar to me. But there were a couple of illustrations by this other guy I didn’t know, Mike Mignola, who also provided the cover, and something about his art style really appealed to me. It was because of this magazine that I started to keep an eye out for future work by this Mignola cat, which of course brought me to his work on Alpha Flight, Incredible Hulk, Cosmic Odyssey, and, best of all, got me on the ground floor of his ongoing Hellboy projects.

Perhaps, most importantly, The Comics Reader #212 was responsible for exposing me to the work of Don Rosa. The ‘zine included, among other strips, a couple of samples of Rosa’s Captain Kentucky superhero spoof, a densely-packed Harvey Kurtzman-esque strip which grabbed my attention, partially for reasons going back to my attraction to amateur “outside the mainstream” projects, but mostly because I thought it was extremely funny. The “important” part of this is that, like with Mignola, I kept an eye out for other work by Rosa. Fantagraphics would publish a two-issue run of Don Rosa’s Comics & Stories (starring Captain Kentucky’s alter ego, Lancelot Pertwillaby), but a few years later, Gladstone Comics, then holder of the Disney comics license, would publish an Uncle Scrooge McDuck comic by Rosa. I was 18 years old when that came out, and that was probably the first Disney comic I’d bought (or, more accurately, that my parents had bought for me) since I was about six or seven years old. It was as funny and adventurous and as delightfully densely-illustrated as those older Rosa comics I so enjoyed…and, here, finally, is that “important” part I keep mentioning…it directly led me into discovering the work of “The Good Duck Artist” Carl Barks, and now, at 41, thanks to the various reprinting projects over the years, I have more or less a complete collection of Barks’ Disney work.

This issue of The Comic Reader was also responsible for my wanting more issues of The Comic Reader. Over the years I’ve managed to accumulate a large portion of The Comic Reader's 200+ issue run, from the earliest mimeographed three-page-long letters, to future DC Comics head honcho Paul Levitz's tenure as editor, to the tiny digests of the ’70s…and each issue providing an insight into the fan's perspective of comics events of the day. As a historical document, it's both fascinating and amusing to see what concerns drove fandom at the time. The fans worrying about, say, violence in comics in 1972, probably would have had heart attacks if they knew what was coming!

Ultimately, I owe a lot to The Comics Reader #212, for how it formed my comic tastes and collecting goals, and showed me a new way of thinking about comics discussion and criticism. It probably wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that it’s even an influence today on my comics blog. And that’s the bittersweet thing…the day of the general-purpose print comics fanzine in the style of The Comic Reader is good and gone, replaced by websites and blogs. Even the most successful comics magazine of recent years, Wizard, is a shadow of its former, pandering, price-guide slinging self. Not saying I don’t love comic news sites and blogs, since, you know, I’m relatively involved in that particular scene…but there’s a bit of sadness in the realization that no one’s going to happen upon an old dusty website in a box in a used bookstore twenty years from now, and discover what comic fans were thinking and doing way back when. Sure, there are web archive sites, but that’s not quite the same…and no guarantee that they’ll be around decades from now anyway.

Anyway, thank you, The Comic Reader #212. You’ve affected my life in many ways, most of them probably good.

Mike Sterling manages Ralph’s Comic Corner in Ventura, CA, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year! He writes about comics at the long-running and generally not-hated weblog Mike Sterling’s Progressive Ruin, vents some steam on his Twitter, is on staff at The Bureau Chiefs, and is a contributor to the Internet sensation Fake AP Stylebook (soon to be a real book from Three Rivers Press). His XBox Live gamertag is “MikesterJr,” if you’d like to shoot him in the face in Grand Theft Auto IV.

Guest Reviewer Month: Timothy Callahan on Nemesis #1

Millar & McNiven’s Nemesis #1

Published by Marvel/Icon
Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: Steve McNiven
Colorist: Dave McCaig
Letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
Cover: Lucio Parrillo
Cover Price: $2.99
Release Date: 3/24/10 

You have to admire Mark Millar’s audacity. 

No, really, you have to admire it. It’s a requirement. He forces it upon you, whether you like it or not. 

Here he is with Millar & McNiven’s Nemesis #1 — yes, that is the official title — and not only does it feature his name at the top, it has the same branding as Wanted and Kick-Ass, the same blocky white font on a field of black, the same “screw all y’all” attitude. Millar’s so sassy that he uses a tagline on the cover of the first issue that mocks his previous series, “Makes Kick-Ass Look Like S#!T,” it reads. Of course, it’s not genuine mockery, it’s just Millar’s way of reminding people that he is, in fact, responsible for Kick-Ass, the movie that’s due to come out around the same time as this completely unrelated comic. “By the writer of ‘Kick-Ass,’” would be a more appropriate label, but that would be lame. Not edgy. Not Millaresque. 

This is, after all, a comic that features a character shooting Uzis from atop a speeding Porsche on the cover. 

So you know it has to be cool. Who doesn’t like Uzis? Or Porsches? Or dudes with masks and capes? 

It’s like the Amazing Stories episode about the kid who had some magic gloop that would make pictures come to life, and he started spreading it around on girly magazines and cheesecake posters. That’s what Millar did to the posters in his adolescent bedroom, and this is the comic that was born. 

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t like this comic. 

Millar hyped this series, in his early interviews, as a kind of “What if Batman were the Joker?” or “What if Batman was a dude who wore white and went around killing people and Commissioner Gordon was like a super-cop who matched wits with this white-clad maniac?” He’s backed off that kind of talk in the months since, because, well, it’s a comic published by Marvel’s Icon imprint, and nobody likes a lawsuit. (Except lawyers, and if Millar were a lawyer, he would have advised himself not to say the things he says about his comics ripping off other comics.) 

And Millar also hyped this series as one of those “simple idea that no one’s ever thought of before” comics, like Kick-Ass, which was such an original idea that it traveled back in time and made Wild Dog forget it ever existed. But while Millar & McNiven’s Nemesis may not actually be that original — the entire character of the Crime Syndicate’s “Owlman” is based on the “What if Batman were evil?” premise, as I’m far from the first to point out — this opening issue has a purity to it. It’s primal. And, yes, it’s simple. 

But simple isn’t bad. And at least it has verve. It has an attitude about itself. It can’t help it, it’s a Mark Millar comic. 

The story starts with “Player One: Tokyo,” and it’s a game from the very first page. Nemesis (a villain who looks like a Batman in white, minus the ears, but he’s totally not an evil Batman, because that would be a copyright violation) holds the Tokyo police chief hostage, blows up some buildings, and runs a train off some tracks. That’s after the train plasters the chief’s body parts all over its front nose. It’s brutal and violent and establishes that Nemesis is (a) evil, (b) really evil, and (c) so evil it hurts. 

Contrast that with “Player Two: Washington,” with the introduction of super-awesome Chief Morrow who blows away some “crack-heads” who have apparently decided to hold up a supermarket that looks like a video store from the parking lot. Morrow’s like the Punisher crossed with Clint Eastwood and James Bond, but as a police chief. 

And he’s destined to be Nemesis’s nemesis. 

But first, Nemeis jumps on top of Air Force One (in flight), shoots the pilots in the face, takes control of the plane, and lands it on the city streets — I don’t know what city it’s supposed to be, since the in-story cues would signify Washington D. C. but it doesn’t look like Washington and there’s a “petrol” truck that, inevitably, gets blown up. Nemesis has taken the president hostage, and the final page of the issue shows the battered commander-in-chief on his knees, with Nemesis on a white throne behind him, re-enacting a bizarro version of the “Smell the Glove” cover shoot. 

If this sounds like a ridiculous comic book, well, it is. But it’s also pure comics. 

It’s pure comics in that way that people use the term “comic book” in a derogatory fashion, as in “that movie is so cliché, so broad, it’s like a comic book.” Sure, that’s an insult if you’re looking for depth and subtlety. But if you’re looking for archetypal characters doing ridiculous things, then comic books are a great place to look. Especially superhero comics. Especially ones written by Mark Millar. 

This comic is a pretty blatant movie pitch — Millar has positioned himself so that everything he does is a blatant movie pitch at this point — and it’s almost entirely drawn in widescreen panels by Steve McNiven (who, absent Dexter Vines on the inks, doesn’t look quite as good as he usually does), but, as a movie pitch, it makes a good comic book. It doesn’t tell it’s story in scenes. Instead, it uses images. This doesn’t have the substance of a movie, even a big dumb action movie. The manic pace of issue #1, properly filmed, would take about five minutes of screen time. It would be hostage-train-explosion-splat-gunshots-exposition-airplane-hijack-President-as-hostage back to back to back. It’s a music video on fast forward. 

That kind of pacing works well in a comic book, when each still panel can freeze the image and give us just the highlights. But a movie would have to show everything that happens between the panels. In other words, the boring stuff. 

This comic doesn’t have time for the boring stuff. It gives you the minimum of characterization — Morrow is “Oprah’s favorite cop,” bam, that’s all you need to know — and it doesn’t even try to capture any details of life as we know it. This is pure comics, in the way that Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit was pure comics. In the way that Frank Miller and Todd McFarlane’s Spawn/Batman was pure comics. In the way that Gardner Fox and Howard Sherman’s Dr. Fate was pure comics.  

Millar & McNiven’s Nemesis #1 may look like a comic from today, but it’s a throwback to simpler times. When comics were about shooting and punching and blowing up stuff. And they didn’t aspire to be anything else. They just wanted to get your attention for a few minutes before you moved on to something more important, like filling out your tax returns or riding our bike to the corner store to buy a handful of penny candy.

Timothy Callahan is the author of Grant Morrison: The Early Years and edited the recent Teenagers from the Future. His column When Words Collide appears weekly at Comic Book Resources.

Guest Reviewer Month Update

April is Guest Reviewer Month here at Trouble with Comics, and I can’t tell you how pleased I am by both the volume and quality of the entries we received from the folks Chris Allen and I invited to take part. If you’re just joining us, you can click over to reviews by such comics internet luminaries as Roger Green, Johanna Draper-Carlson, Eric San Juan, Nina Stone, Jamie S. Rich, Jose Villarrubia, Chad Nevett, Box Brown, Grant Goggans and Bob Levin. There’s much more to come in this last third of Guest Reviewer Month, so please check in frequently and let us know how you’re enjoying all the reviews.

— Alan David Doane

Guest Reviewer Month - Bob Levin on Sitting Shiva for Myself

The fact we have a writer of Bob Levin’s stature agreeing to provide a review is due to his kindness and a “it can’t hurt to ask” attitude that I’ve carried through my life with a success rate of maybe 52%. Levin is not really a critic; he’s a journalist whose subject is primarily outsider cartoonists, those who have flouted conventions, rules and even copyright laws (or worse, depending on one’s verdict after reading Most Outrageous, his examination of the life, career and sexual abuse case against Hustler cartoonist Dwayne (“Chester the Molester”) Tinsley). I came to his work first through The Pirates and The Mouse: Disney’s War Against the Counterculture and felt it was an important effort because in my admittedly incomplete experience there hadn’t been many books about cartoonists that were very serious, that had a strong journalistic voice while credibly establishing their subject within the world around them. What was around was fun but fannish, or deadly dull. Levin has a sly wit that shows his allegiance to his subjects. He doesn’t glorify them or necessarily agree with their choices of windmills at which to tilt, but it’s clear there is rebellion in his heart. You get a small example of that in Most Outrageous, when pleads guilty to writing under the influence of Faulkner, or even here, where he offers a review not of a comic book or graphic novel, but of a collection of feuilletons, which he helpfully defines below. Dig the “Who…” paragraph, as he arrives at his own tumbling storytelling rhythm. It’s a great change of pace from his usual male obsessives, not that I can get enough of them. 

—Christopher Allen

Pretty as a Picture

When Christopher Allen asked me to contribute a review, my initial thoughts were: (1) I don’t have time; (2) when I do have time, my loyalties are to The Comics Journal; (3) I don’t read many comics or graphic novels; and (4) anyway, reviews aren’t my thing.  I believed that list damn convincing.  But he’d said nice things about my work, and when your sales figures are dwarfed by Sarah Palin’s dog’s manicurist’s memoirs, you need all the allies in the media you can get..  So I thought I’d review Eric Haven’s Aviatrix,which I meant to read anyway; but, literally, one moment later, I clicked from e-mail to The Comics Reporter, and there was Tom Spurgeon doing a better job than I could ever imagine.  (While I hesitate to speak for the Almighty, it sure looked like He was agreeing with me.)  Then I had another idea.  What if I reviewed the first non-graphic comic?  Whatever, Chris (more or less) said.

At least, identifying the FNGC wouldn’t require heavy time in the archives since, as far as I knew, I’d just invented the classification.  (If Marcel Duchamp could transform a snow shovel into art by declaring one to be such, I felt no shame in creating my own genre.)  And since I had beside my bed a book I wanted to plug – Sitting Shiva for Myself (Regent Press. $12.95), by Renee Blitz, the lap-swimmer at my pool with whom I have discussed Kafka – I figured why let the absence of any glyphic pen strokes forestall me from offing the proverbial dual birds.           

The more I thought about it, the more sense it made.  It seemed so datedly un-POMO, so small-minded and discriminatory to be a prisoner of such arbitrariness as “comic book” or “novel,” or “mischung der Werbetrager.”  In TCJ 300, no less a personage than Art Spiegelman, who has thought about comics as much as anyone, offers his belief that they should “deliver either an emotional charge… or a really new idea…”; and, really, isn’t that what any form of artistic expression is after?  When the words alone can’t provide the jolt, pictures may help; but if the words can deliver the juice, why should doodles or Rembrandt be required? And in Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud kvells about the collaboration that occurs between medium and audience in the “space” between the panels, and if space is so blinking important, why rely on other people’s pictures to fill it?  Readers who work their own imaginations will get all the wattage they desire by applying them to what goes on between – or above – Blitz’s feuilletons.  

Which, Webster’s Ninth Collegiate tells us, are short literary compositions of “familiar tone and reminiscent content.”  (Wikipedia adds they are usually  reflective, humorous, ironic, and, while focused “on cultural… social and moral issues,” “extremely subjective in their conclusions.”)  In “Shiva,” Blitz offers one hundred of the ironic, subjective little buggers in one hundred eighteen pages.[1]  Think of them as panels, with words-to-image relationships slightly more than those of Al Feldstein.  Think of a narrative no less plotted than Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage, a recognized illustrated masterpiece, against whose walls I am still banging my head, trying to dislodge the sense within them.

Most of Blitz’s feuilletons are written in the first person.  The narrator is usually a woman.  (Those written in the third person are usually about a woman.  Those that are narrated by or are about a man usually concern his relationship with a woman.)  These women, nearly always unnamed, share enough characteristics that it is not irrational to think of them as the same.  (If you are with me in accepting the feuilletons as panels, think of them as having been drawn by an unsteady hand, as, for example, Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s wavering versions of herself.)  The woman is usually (if not always) Jewish.  She is usually in her seventies, alone, with two (or three) ex-husbands, discarded for their lack of tenderness or beauty or humor, or for fucking her best friend or not washing before bed.  She has an adult daughter (or two) who displeases her for one reason or another – drugs, Jesus, radical lesbianism, the grievances against her they still carry, like snails their shells.  She is from New York, a family of leftist butchers and furriers, and has attended Hunter College, when she was hot and young and still displayed the possibility of brilliance.  She lives in Berkeley, has had no career, may write.  She has (sometimes) a schizophrenic daughter who resides in Section Eight housing and smears feces on its walls.  She has (sometimes) an adored dog which shits on the four corners of the white towel on the bathroom floor.  She has been in psychoanalysis for five (or seven) years.  She eats chocolate croissants, deep fried egg rolls, Twinkies, Snickers, salami sandwiches, instead of crucifers and green leafy vegetables.  She is seen at home in a soiled, flannel nightgown, shredded house slippers, old, smelly robe, walking back and forth,” kvetching oy veh.”

Who, when she needs a housekeeper, hires an ex-Thai streetwalker, who may or may not steal her Fieldcrest linen.  Who, desiring companionship, invites into her home the entire One World Indignant Family commune, which had, for political reasons, split from the One World Happy Family commune.  (It does not work out.)  Who, during a psychic reading, hears her husband in the next room cracking chicken bones with his teeth, sucking out the marrow.  Who visits a doctor who seems to practice “obnoxious behavior,” not internal medicine.  Who hears “the sounds of death coming out of the walls at 3:30 a.m.”  Who recalls herself as “a sad young girl, apart, out on a limb, too young for mourning, in my own dream of childhood, my own teddy bear dream of toy drums and erasers, peppermint sticks and love.” Who believes conversation is “only there in the first place to charm, delight, enchant, open the portals away from self-disgust, wretchedness, rancidity.”  Who, “watching the time of day go by on the livingroom walls,” thinks “ no one wants to talk about that…  Maybe Marcel Proust, but he’s French, they talk about anything.”  Who reports herself “traumatized by sight seeing”; unable to know if she has seen the right things and had the right thoughts, she fears that if she “told someone what my good time was, they would run from me, hilarious.”  Who asks herself “what have you learned in a lifetime of reading, thinking, conversation, hanging on the phone with mere acquaintances for hours, 1000 Buddhist Sermons on Nothingness, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and your subscription to The New Yorker which, by the way, has run out and needs renewing.”  Who instructs us “if you want to write, just remember… no describe, no explain, no narrate, yes to ambiance yes to music, only an impression, no certainty, elusive, disappearing like the Cheshire Cat, like life.”

Sometimes, my wife Adele, the psychoanalytic critic formerly known to my readers as “Ruth Delhi,” says, when dialogue between the characters takes over these pieces, it is impossible to tell who is speaking.  Differences break down.  Boundaries dissolve.  You feel the need each person has for the other – wife and husband, mother and daughter – despite the horrors accrued between them.  Having the relationship is better than the alternative – is preferable to the void.  Blitz is, Adele believes, “a genius at what she does.”             

But what about pictures, you ask.  Well, what about “those beat-up middle aged Japanese waitresses tortured by failed love, their black mascara bleeding onto their anguished faces, black hair coiffed in the Japanese manner, red kimonos with huge redflower giant-size poisonous poppy petals open to the ultimate swoon of death, vulvas choking into your throat, everything working together, the sash, the cummerbund, the little flapping pack on their tush running with small feet”?  What about the woman with “the rigors of age upon me, the dowager’s hump, the turkey neck, no waistline, flab all over,” hiding in a blanket, trying to conceal herself with red silk panties from the inquiring eyes of her ex-husband’s other ex-wife’s teenage daughter, detailed by her mother to reassure her of the narrator’s decrepitude?  Hey, they’re there in blinking black-and-white.

In Shiva Blitz circles sorrow, peaks beneath its covers, measures it, pinches the flesh between its ribs, embraces it, yet resists its call to utter despair.  One laughs at the grotesques she reveals at the same time one winces.  One is delighted by the rhythm of her sentences, the flash of her ideas, as they pound like nails into one’s foot.  She has compressed the ordinary within her vise to highlight life’s irreducible absurd.  She has polished the commonplace with sparkling language and dissonant punctuation and Thelonious Monk’s angular glide.  She has turned her lyrical ear to loneliness, her anointing eye to grief.

Blitz’s book has been self-published.  Until now, as far as I or Google know, it has gone unreviewed.  She has been solicited to give no readings.  Yet I recommend Shiva highly.  Blitz is a profound artist – serious, unique – giving us her best.  Check it out.  Books without pictures – BOP! POW! – they aren’t just for egg-headed intellectuals any more.

[1]Anti-Semitic literary critics of fin-de-siecle Europe found the form well-suited for Jews, whom, they believed, lacked the capacity to fully analyze and deeply understand the world.  And how could we, asked Blitz in one of our conversations.  Being locked out, how could we understand the world’s truth and meaning?

Bob Levin is the author of The Best Ride to New York (novel), Fully Armed (biographic fiction), The Pirates and the Mouse (non-fiction), Outlaws, Rebels, Pirates, Freethinkers & Pornographers (essays), and Most Outrageous (non-fiction). His short stories and articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including Massachusetts Review, Carolina Quarterly, Karamu, Spin, New Republic, and Cavalier. His writings have won awards from Pushcart Press, CCLM, the San Francisco Bar Association, and the NEA. He is a long time contributing writer to The Comics Journal. 

Guest Reviewer Month: Box Brown Reviews Jeffrey Brown’s Process

This is a difficult book to find!  I was only able to procure one thanks to my friend Susie Cagle going to a small convention in California!  But, I’m glad (and thankful) that she picked it up for me.  Maybe I am the perfect audience for this type of material.

Process by Jeffrey Brown is not just a mini-comic, it is a packet containing a mini-comic, various notes, actual comic making process paraphernalia and even some original art.  It’s certainly worth the $15 for fans of Jeffrey Brown and anyone curious about what goes into making a comic.

Process picks up where Brown’s last book, Funny Misshapen Body left off.  FMB was a really fascinating story of Brown’s path to comic success.  Process really gets into the specifics of Brown’s medium right down to the type of paper and pens he uses.  It’s always interesting to me to see how an artist of any medium works but as a comic artist it’s most fascinating to see how my “peers” work.  I found that Brown’s process was a bit more complicated than mine.  But, then maybe not.  I suggest that the documentation of process would be revealing to the artist as well as the reader.  Take a close look at your own process (of doing anything really) and you’ll probably find a lot more ritual than you thought existed.

What’s really interesting about Process is seeing how Brown works simultaneous on so many different projects.  It seems he has no less than three different publishers.  He’s working on completely different projects all at the same time.  From his Transformers parody Incredible Change Bots, to his mostly silent and beautiful cat books (Cat Getting out of Paper Bag and the upcoming Cats are Weird) to his insightful auto-bio works, it’s a wonder they’re not all mish-mashed! It’s funny though because as complicated as his process seems under a microscope it’s really not.  He seems to just work on what ever is exciting him at the time, which I’ve found is the best way to work. Nothing makes a comic (or any work of art) more interesting than a creator who is excited about it.

Process is really a little gem that’ll be tough to find.  But, I suggest you pick it up if you see it around.  If nothing else it’s always nice to see an established creator make a slight retreat to the world of mini-comics.  It’s obvious that comics are a labor of love for all involved.


Box Brown is creator of the webcomic Bellen! and many mini-comics.  He’s currently working on a “religious epic” called Everything Dies (recently reviewed by ADD here on Trouble with Comics).  You can keep up with his print comics blog and pick up his comics at his online store and at finer comic shops everywhere.

Guest Review Month - Chad Nevett on Spider-Man: The Clone Saga (2009-2010)

Writers appeal to me for different reasons. Some dazzle you with their style or ideas, their sheer virtuosity or genius. You know you’re not likely to write anything like Alan Moore, or David Foster Wallace or Bob Dylan. Others are more approachable; when you read Robert Kirkman or Nick Hornby, or listen to Tom Petty, it’s more a feeling of being next to that person on the barstool, having a friendly conversation. Chad Nevett’s writing has that kind of feel to me, and it’s a style I tend to favor in my own reviews. It’s not that there’s no style or ideas, nor that it’s easy, but that it’s uncluttered, the main purpose being communication in as direct a way as possible. And while it has the confidence that good criticism requires, there’s still a very honest and appealing degree of self-doubt. Sometimes when we review something, we just aren’t sure how we feel about every part of it, or why something affects us in a certain way, and I like that Nevett doesn’t gloss over those unsettled areas.

— Christopher Allen

Spider-Man: The Clone Saga #1-6
Written by: Tom DeFalco, Howard Mackie
Drawn by: Todd Nauck, Victor Olazaba
Coloured by: Javier Tartaglia
Lettered by: Dave Sharpe
Published by: Marvel Comics
Price: $3.99 ea. (USD)

I can’t deny that part of me is somewhat ashamed for buying all six issues of this series. I’m not a believer in the term “guilty pleasure,” since I don’t feel guilty about what I enjoy, but Spider-Man: The Clone Saga would come pretty close to being my “guilty pleasure.” I bought and read every issue in an effort to appease and feed my inner 11-year old. While I’ve grown up a lot since then, he’s still inside of me and he’s the part of me that made me hand over $24.00 for these comics. Since that childish voice doesn’t dictate what I read/watch/listen too much, I figure this little trip into nostalgia isn’t too bad.

Unfortunately, like most things nostalgia, it wasn’t close to satisfying.

In critical circles, there’s much said about authorial intent. Usually, the intention of the author is an interesting fact that you account for in your discussion of a work, but something that’s ultimately meaningless because, when looking at a work, it’s impossible to distinguish between what an author intended and what’s there. Things emerge that the author didn’t purposefully do and, yet, it’s impossible to deny that they’re there. Themes and connections that may or may not have worked their way in subconsciously or unintentionally. So, that’s authorial intent and how it really means nothing.

But, what about reader intent?

When thinking about Spider-Man: The Clone Saga, I can’t help but wonder what I expected to get out of the series. I was never truly under the delusion that it would be good. I knew going in that these would be bad comics. Look at the basic structure: take a story that was originally intended to be, at least, six months long spread out over four monthly titles plus a quarterly book and, possibly, one-shots and mini-series, and tell it in six issues. It wasn’t going to work in the hands of the best writers and artists let alone Tom DeFalco, Howard Mackie, and Todd Nauck, all skilled creators in their own right, but none exactly the sort to win extensive critical acclaim — and rightly so. They’re workman creators. People you stick on books when you want an average, not-too-good/not-too-bad superhero comic.

So, what was I hoping to get out of the series?

Nostalgia certainly played a factor. I was enraptured with the original Spider-Clone Saga, buying as many issues as I could, usually leaning toward the stories focusing on Ben Reilly, the Scarlet Spider, and clone of Peter Parker. Being a fan of alternate versions of characters, a Spider-Man that’s not quite Spider-Man was intriguing to my younger self. How was he different? And what did those differences say about Peter Parker? While the Scarlet Spider’s costume was kind of lame, it was also appealing. I could retroactively say something about it being a criticism of creating superheroes at the point where all the best looks, powers, and names are taken, but that’s 27-year old Chad, not 11-year old Chad. It was just cool to see a variation on Spider-Man. There was a joy and wonder that I took in reading those comics at the time — in reading all comics as kid, honestly — that just isn’t there anymore. Going back and re-experiencing things loved as a child is always a dangerous thing to do, because it can ruin memories, so a new comic telling a variation on those original comics is a way to revisit them without actually revisiting them. If it sucks, that’s because the execution sucked, not the inherent concept or idea. It’s the same and yet different.

If that’s true, why wasn’t I satisfied?

Spider-Man: The Clone Saga didn’t feed that need. I knew it wouldn’t after reading the first issue. I’m not even sure that need is there. After all, I have revisited things I’ve loved as a kid without any negative side-effects. “The Death and Return of Superman” is something I reread not too long ago and enjoyed for various reasons, able to recognise its faults without it damaging my memories. Perhaps I don’t have nostalgia for the original Spider-Clone Saga. Maybe it came too late or maybe I’ve reconciled myself with how it didn’t work and why that was the case. I went into The Clone Saga knowing the original intent of the creators on the Spider-Man titles. I knew what they had wanted to do and what changes were made. My sense of wonder and nostalgia had been killed long before this book was even conceived.

If not nostalgia, what drove me to buy the series?

Spider-Man: The Clone Saga doesn’t tell the “true” original story as intended by the writers. In the first issue, it deviates from the plan in a way by having Kaine shown working for some mysterious figure, a character twist not done until much later, well after the story had been extended beyond its originally planned run. While I didn’t think the first issue was that good, that change gave me a small piece of hope: DeFalco and Mackie could have anything happen in this story. They may not tell the story as originally intended, but they could go one better and tell a story that couldn’t have been told. There were no limits to this story since it doesn’t “count.” They could do anything they wanted. And they did just that. And it still sucked. But, I never seriously expected it not to suck, even with the promise of things happening that couldn’t happen in the regular Spider-Man books. Here, Peter Parker has a kid that lives and gives up being Spider-Man (sort of, by the end, it’s not clear what’s going on with him and Spider-Man) and that would never truly happen in the Spider-Man books. Even during the Clone Saga, that idea was teased but never executed. DeFalco and Mackie do it and it doesn’t make this series any better. They swerve the readers by making the mastermind Harry Osborn instead of Norman and that doesn’t make it any better.

Then why did I keep buying it? Why?

Writing this “review” has made me think of something: I bought it to write about it. Spider-Man: The Clone Saga is a fascinating comic for a few reasons. Firstly, it has made me think about why I bought it. Not many books do that, because I don’t keep buying many bad books. I kept buying this one, so that required examination. Secondly, it’s one of the new breed of nostalgia superhero books that Marvel are producing and they’re flat-out interesting as concepts: comics that look to give readers the ‘proper’ version of the comics they already read, whether it’s a rewriting of the story like this series or supposedly what would have come next had the writer not left the book like in the case of Chris Claremont’s X-Men Forever. It’s not enough for characters and ideas to be brought back in continuity, rewritten and reimagined by new creators, satisfying our need to have every character to ever appear to constantly reappear, appeasing everyone since their favourites are all on display, but, now, we want to go back literally and have the creators of that time rewrite history for us. We want them to create offshoot continuities that we can imagine are what would have happened despite obviously not being the case. It’s an odd mixture of the creators trying to swerve the readers since they’ve all talked about what they would have done differently. With that information out there, they can’t exactly just do what they originally intended to do. That would be boring. Who wants to read a comic written by Chris Claremont where Wolverine is killed and resurrected by the Hand to be their killer? Not only has Claremont stated a thousand times that that’s the story he wanted to tell but Marvel wouldn’t let him, but Mark Millar wrote it already. Of course, the mysterious figure with the trademark Osborn hair is Harry, because we already had the version where Norman was back from the dead and masterminding the whole thing! Of course, Peter and Mary Jane’s baby lives along with Aunt May, but Ben Reilly still leaves town, because that’s totally different! These are nonsensical surprise comics. They’re books that have to both stick to our expectations of what the story should be while providing enough twists and turns that we’re not bored. They have to simultaneously recreate history faithfully and deviate from it extensively. Too far in either direction and it doesn’t work. None of the books to do this yet have been creative successes, but they’re interesting failures.

I knew Spider-Man: The Clone Saga would be a bad comic, but I also knew that it would be an interesting comic. And I was right.

Chad Nevett lives in Windsor, Ontario with his girlfriend and her cat. He writes about comics online at his blog, GraphiContent, Comic Book Resources, and Comics Should be Good. He does some wrestling writing for 411mania, and also does the Splash Page Podcast with Tim Callahan weekly. You can follow him on Twitter for more self-involved ramblings.


I hope you’ve all been enjoying Guest Reviewers Month, a cheap and relatively easy way for TWC to class up the joint by inviting some our favorite writers-about-comics to drop some reviews. ADD and I have been more than pleased by the great folks who agreed to participate. So far we’ve had Roger Green, Johanna Draper-Carlson, Eric San Juan, Nina Stone, Jamie S. Rich and Jose Villarubia. And frankly, we were pacing ourselves early on, not knowing just how much we had. So expect the rest of April to be pretty packed, close to a new review every day. Thanks to everyone who participated. We owe ya one.


Guest Reviewer Month: José Villarrubia on Deicide

I’ve been sometimes asked “who were your greatest influences when it comes to coloring comics?” The answer is easy. Growing up in Spain my two idols were Richard Corben and Moebius. In the 1970s these two giants changed the comics medium, including its colors. It is important to note that these two artists did complete art, including color painted by hand. The fact that they no longer color their own work is a sign of how much things have changed. But in Europe artists still tend to color their own work for the oversize graphic novels that they call “albums.”

A series of fantasy albums appeared a few years back, which stood head and shoulders above all others. Deicide, written by Carlos Portela and illustrated by Das Pastoras is an underrated masterpiece.

The story begins in a familiar set up: in a primitive tribe a virgin sacrifice must be done to appease an evil god. The virgin in this case happens to be the chief’s daughter and there is a love triangle between her and two warriors that pursue her. Predictably one wins the contest for her affection but his actions have dire consequences. The setting brings to mind Bloodstar, the brilliant Robert E. Howard adaptation by Richard Corben. But a mystical aspect is also introduced on the first pages, reminiscent of Moebius’ esoteric work like is 40 Days in the Desert. Soon the story becomes a quest for the lost soul of the beloved, an Orphic voyage though an Oz-like world (the hero’s companion is a twisted version of the Cowardly Lion), complete with deserted vistas, strange creatures, and alien cultures.  After 92 pages the story reaches a dramatic cliffhanger. And then… well, the proverbial  “To be continued…” That was six years ago and both creators have since moved on to other projects.

Das Pastoras is now working with Jodorowsky in the Metabarons cycle, so the story may never be finished. Yet despite this fact and its somewhat clichéd premise, the execution of Deicide is extraordinary. Each page vibrates with an internal life that I have not seen since Liberatore drew those insane Ranxerox stories in the eighties… Das Pastoras is a true comics master in all areas: his storytelling is pitch perfect, his mise-en-scène is impeccable, like Moebius, Corben and Liberatore, he combines caricature and realism flawlessly, his designs seem like ethnological records from lost civilizations, fully developed and coherent, his creatures are bizarre and familiar at the same time… and his color… well his color is just perfect! It’s a rare combination of realism and subjectivity where line and shape are perfectly integrated. His watercolored landscapes are evocative and inviting. They “feel” like natural environments, even if they are part of alien worlds.

In the U.S., Deicide has had a spotty publication history: in 2002, Humanoids Publishing translated a well-printed oversize hardcover of the first chapter, subtitled “ Rage Against the Gods.” Two years later, DC Comics reprinted the story bundled with the second chapter under the subtitle “Path of the Dead.” This later reprint suffered from having its format reduced to standard American comic size and poor printing where the yellows saturated all the pages. So there is no perfect edition in English to enjoy both of the existent chapters of the saga. I recommend getting the first English hardcover “Rage of the Gods” and the second volume in its French or Spanish editions, where they were produced properly… This is an amazing achievement and a feast for the eyes of any lover of the Fantasy genre, and proves that the revolution Corben and Moebius started four decades ago continues to this day.


José Villarrubia is an artist and illustration professor with extensive comics credits to his name, perhaps most notably two projects with writer Alan Moore, The Mirror of Love and Voice of the Fire, both available from Top Shelf Productions.

Guest Reviewer Month - Johanna Draper-Carlson on Rapunzel’s Revenge

When I started writing about comics about a decade ago, Johanna was already an established voice, often of reason and always of authority. I don’t think our tastes overlap much, but I’ve always respected what she had to say, and those who don’t do so at their peril. Because aside from the absolute clarity and efficiency of her style, one of my favorite things about her is the occasional blast of withering scorn she unleashes, like a hurricane tearing up an Iowa cornfield. She always plays fair, though. Fortunately for the authors and publisher here, they were met with approval.

—Christopher Allen

Rapunzel’s Revenge
written by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
illustrated by Nathan Hale (no relation)
Bloomsbury, $18.99

This twisted take on the fairy tale of Rapunzel sparkles with life, intelligence, wit, adventure, and just plain fun.

For the first time, the story of a girl locked in a tower by an evil stepmother and her excessively long hair makes a certain amount of sense. The Hales give Rapunzel character and motivation—she’s active, making choices, instead of someone bad things are done to. Oh, there’s plenty of that, too, but she works to overcome her circumstances instead of passively waiting for a prince to wander by.

Rapunzel is a young girl who lives in a beautiful villa with everything she could want except freedom. The woman who says she’s her mother has the power to make things grow, an ability she uses to keep those around her under her control. On her twelfth birthday, Rapunzel learns the truth about her life, and as a result, the evil woman locks her away in the hollowed-out top of a tree.

What’s freshest about this story is how Rapunzel gets away. She grows amazingly long braids, which four years later, she uses as rope to lasso a nearby tree and swing to safety…ungracefully, for that touch of humor and realism. The cartooning is outstanding. It’s clear and easy to read, helpful for those new to graphic novels, but full of attitude and expression and movement. That suits the Western feel into which the story transitions.

Rapunzel stumbles into a nearby town, where she learns to work for what she needs and meets Jack, a con man and thief who introduces her to life on the run. They try to rescue a kidnapped little girl, only to discover that the world is full of double-crosses and the selfish, whether they’re officially outlaws or not. There’s a quest voyage and opportunities to help folk they meet along the way, defeating various monsters and threats.

The story is lengthy and rewarding. The book is 144 pages, but with a higher-than-average number of panels per page, at 8 to 14, the story involves you for a long time. That’s a great way to feel like you’re really visiting Rapunzel’s world. The chapters, by contrast, open with lovely full-page illustrations setting the stage for the action to come.

If I’d managed to read this when it came out in 2008, it would have easily been one of my top ten books of that year. It’s hilarious, inspiring, and well worth reading and re-reading.


Johanna Draper-Carlson reviews comics, graphic novels, manga and related subjects at Comics Worth Reading.