Trouble with Comics

Guest Reviewer Month - Nina Stone on Garth Ennis’ Troubled Souls

I don’t really know Nina Stone. I don’t just mean that she’s relatively new to writing about comics (and reading them!). I mean that of all the people I invited, she’s the only one I haven’t had any direct contact with, as her husband Tucker has been the intermediary, which I find rather touchingly protective. But I really wanted to get her in on this little project because I find her work so fresh. She’s been writing this great series at The Factual Opinion where essentially each new book is like dating a new guy. It’s a witty, feminine take on something I hadn’t really thought about before, but you know, the relationship guys have with comics isn’t so far from this. We obsess over them, we get our greasy mitts on them, instantly diminishing or tainting them, we cast them aside for small flaws or just because we can’t accept them for what they are, if that isn’t what we expect them to be. Anyway, she has a nice style and her work is always too smart to try to get any mileage from some sort of doe-eyed comics innocence.

—Christopher Allen

Troubled Souls

Writer - Garth Ennis

Artist - John McCrea

(currently out of print; you might find one here)

If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written before, you know that I’m not a long-time comics reader, nor do I know a lot about various writers and artists.  But I have been dabbling in this world for a couple of years now, and now and then, I do recognize a name.  (Often the recognition is “Oh, that’s the guy my husband loves and reads obsessively.)

So, I come to Troubled Souls never having read Crisis or, honestly, much of Garth Ennis except for an issue of The Boys.

As a newcomer to this world of comics, I have to say that it is really enjoyable to pick up a full collection (or “trade” as I guess it’s called—why is it called that?), and read a full story from beginning to end about characters I’ve never read about before.  And in this case, too, about a place I’ve read little about.  I love Ireland!  I went there for a study abroad.  But I’ve never read much about it or too many stories set there.  Bravo for the history lesson embedded in the story.  I guess I’m not the only non-Irish who doesn’t know so much about the history of Ireland.  It was done in a lovely way, as if Tom (the main character) was brushing up on history for himself, and we got to read it like notes on lined paper. 

Troubled Souls is more than just a story about the ongoing Irish conflict(s). It seems to me that it was a story about one’s love of friends, family, country and (least of all) self, and the difficulty one goes through when forced to put those in some order of priority.  I found the underlying theme to be about self-preservation.  When it comes down to choosing sides, beliefs, and standing by what we value, what wins out in the battle of one’s own heart and mind?  Do you stand for what your family believes in just because they do and have always told you too?  Do you do it just because you love them?  What actions do you take and what do you own up to?

Tom’s crisis begins after he plants a bomb for the IRA under duress, because he thinks he’s a coward.  But he also did it because he loves his family, his friends and his girlfriend and didn’t want anything bad to happen to them—and something would have, that’s pretty definite. Yet he’s unable to come clean with them and tell them what he did, for fear that he’d lose their love.  Subsequently, he loses them all anyway, as he decides he needs to leave home in order to move forward with his life. It’s a painful story.

Likewise, Damien, who seems like pure evil at first, turns out to be a guy whose motivation for becoming a “bomb-thrower” was his love for his dead brother.  He mentions the politics, but it’s all theoretical rationalization—he kills people in the name of love and loyalty to someone he misses. But when it came time for him to kill Tom, he isn’t able to do it.  Although he’d killed so many before, he knew he’d killed them out of love (for his brother) and out of hate (for his brother’s death).  He felt neither for Tom—there’s a vague friendship that develops, but that’s it—and without some kind of extreme emotional response, he just gives up.

Who is good and who is evil?  Who’s right and who’s wrong? Tom and Damien are characters who represent the two opposing sides of the conflict in a complicated fashion, and I think Garth Ennis wanted to depict that no one side is purely right or purely wrong, not when you’re staring at their motives. Both are motivated by a strong love of their families, their friends and their country, and both sides are motivated by what they perceive as a justifiable hate of the other side’s objective.

It was enlightening for me to learn how this conflict seems to color every little exchange in Northern Ireland, with people either get on board and fighting, or willfully ignoring it and trying to live their lives.  The only other choice seems to be to leave. 

Tom refers to himself as a coward.  So does Damien. I didn’t see Tom so much as a coward, I just saw how he felt impotent in his power to exert any change. I saw a failure of opportunity to do something other than what he did. I think if he had a chance to make the choice again, it probably would have played out the exact same way. It just seemed like the conflict, the corruption, it was all too deep, too far gone in motion for any one single person to construct any change. It was an engine, he was lost in it, and that’ll leave anyone feeling impotent.

The part of the story where Tom and Damien are hiding in the safe house exchanging stories and becoming friends is, of course, really poignant. The story in the comic comes from that hopeful, sincere perspective that if opposing sides, forces, could just spend time together and really talk things out, there could be understanding, respect and perhaps some version of peace.  It’s kind of quaint, but it’s clearly focused on how that can be true on a personal level. It understood that as soon as you let the world back in, it’s impossible to maintain, as evidenced by what happens when Tom runs out of Damien’s car, luring him toward death.

I’m surprised by how quickly I read it.  I thought due to my unfamiliarity with the subject matter, and the length, it would take me a while.  But it grabbed my attention and held it from beginning to end.

John McCrea’s art is really interesting.  I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like it.  It seems mostly like watercolor work, and it’s really beautiful. I liked that although the topic of this comic is dark, the art is mostly light in color.  I think there’s a tendency to draw anything that’s about war, conflict or violence in dark greens, reds and black.  Even when the color palette is broader, it still tends to use dark and gloomy colors.  Here, almost everything was in yellow tones and hues.  It felt like great juxtaposition to the feeling of conflict. I also really liked that, every now and then, there was a splash of photo-realism or a series of frames in black and white. All in all, it’s really enjoyable art that didn’t distract me from the story, aided in telling it.

This was a great read.  It’s not just a way to spend the time or escape my day, but an enlightening and philosophically thought provoking story. 


Nina Stone writes about comics and other things at The Factual Opinion.

Guest Reviewer Month: Eric San Juan on Cerebus Vol. 16: The Last Day

It would be dishonest to suggest that an examination of the final collection of Dave Sim’s sprawling Cerebus saga can take place without at least some discussion of Sim himself. As Cerebus wore on, Sim began to put himself front and center, making himself an explicit part of the story both literally and figuratively. His views became impossible to untangle from the narrative. It’s hard to maintain a level of distanced objectivity when he is using his story as a pulpit from which to espouse his views. 

I tried, though. I tried to assess the work and narrative without also assessing Sim. After all, it would be easy to savage The Last Day if you’re looking to assess Sim’s beliefs rather than his fictional narrative, especially since by the end of its run Cerebus very much became a Sim manifesto. 

So the trick is to step back a few paces, keep Sim at arm’s length, and say, “Well, how is the story?” 

In the case of The Last Day, those of you who bailed out on Cerebus before the end may be surprised to learn that it’s actually pretty damn good. This is the sixteenth and final volume of a saga that had already spanned thousands of pages, a saga that at its best ranks among the greatest works of the medium and at its worst sits among the most painfully self-indulgent. And all roads lead here. Cerebus, both as a series and a character, goes out in a way that by now HAD to be expected. With no apologies for veering off into whateverthehellDaveSimwantstotalkabout, with interesting and often bold use of the comics medium, and by posing just as many questions as it offers answers. Sim again shows that despite what you think of him or his ideas, when push comes to shove he crafts a damn compelling comic. 

Prior to this volume we experienced a major leap forward in time, a jump that turned the entire book on its head by wiping out every last member of the series’ mammoth supporting cast. Sim then used Cerebus to wax poetic on the Torah, Woody Allen, and (more overtly than ever before) gender issues. The Last Day uses the same jump forward device, moving us ahead to, well, Cerebus’ final day on Earth. The volume opens with … 

Okay, how do I explain this? Dave Sim believes he has figured out how to scientifically interpret the Book of Genesis, discovered the Universal Theory that eluded Einstein, and knows how to incorporate both into his belief that women are, like, total bitches. He spends the first 40 pages of this volume outlining his all-encompassing theory in a pseudo-Biblical style, and boy is it a chore. This is Dave Sim’s Book of Genesis and Quantum Physics, explaining how the universe and life was formed, how they relate to God, and why women are, like, total bitches. 

No, I’m not kidding. 

Annnnyway, the rest of The Last Day is (mercifully) pure comic book, dropping once and for all Sim’s examinations of theology. That’s not to say the themes and ideas that have come to dominate the series are dropped -they remain front and center - but rather that they are again made part of the narrative rather than an intrusive and distracting diversion. That’s a welcome return to form. Sim’s commentary via fiction we like. His lectures, not so much. 

Once the story proper begins, you get the sense the series is again going somewhere, and somewhere interesting. Set about 100 years after Latter Days, society is in shambles, Cerebus is a secluded religious leader (picking up threads first woven way back in Rick’s Story) and pagan evil is making the world an ugly place. But Cerebus doesn’t care. Cerebus is consumed only by his desire to see someone very important to him one last time. 

The culmination of this situation is Cerebus’ meeting with the person in question, and it is fantastic stuff. Ominous, hurtful, and compelling, the issue-long conversation is some of the best Cerebus in a long, long while. It all comes out of the blue, of course - Cerebus, this person and the situation they’re in, all of it refers to a huge stretch of Cerebus’ life we never actually see unfold in the pages of the book - but by now we’ve been thrown so many curveballs by Sim, what’s one more? This curveball is a particularly good one. For thousands of pages we’ve seen Cerebus struggle with his own weakness, with an ugly series of often anti-social decisions, and with an inability to keep and maintain connections with people. All of that baggage makes this confrontation a powerful and unexpected moment, one that brings to a head everything that came to define the Cerebus character. 

And then, Cerebus dies. That’s not a spoiler. We’ve always known this is how the series would end. What we didn’t know was that the ending would be so enigmatic. Sim, who had grown heavy-handed in recent years, uses restraint here, leaving it up to the reader to puzzle out Cerebus’ fate. It’s a bold choice, but by now we should expect such boldness from Sim. 

That said, it’s hard to say the end is satisfying. It is entirely appropriate, though. Cerebus goes out a pathetic, broken creature, feeling himself fucked over by people he loves, screwed over by his own rash actions, and left alone to die. Once on top of the world, once a ruler, a politician, a pope, a hero, Cerebus is now none of these things. He dies the slow, lingering death of his own comic book. A death in obscurity. Alone, unmourned, and unloved. 

Appropriate, no? 

Eric San Juan is the co-author of A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense (Scarecrow Press 2009). In 2009, he self-published an anthology of comic stories, Pitched!, which is available at For more on Eric visit

Guest Reviewer Month - Jamie S. Rich on Howard Chaykin’s Time2

Jamie S. Rich is one of the first people I got to know in the comics industry. He was Editor-in-Chief of Oni Press, and to my mind, the heart of it. He was generous and kind to a newcomer then, not just with books but time (heck, he made me some CDs, too). As he moved into his current career as full-time freelance writer, I haven’t kept in touch the way I should, but when I have, he’s remained as generous as ever. Funny, talented and possessing impeccable taste, Jamie has enriched every project with which he’s been involved, and helped many searching creators find their voices. I’m fascinated with this review, both as someone finding his appreciation of Howard Chaykin gaining more and more lately, and because Jamie touches on one of the (few?) great things about getting older: if you’re lucky (or maybe just been through a lot of crap), you find you can now see some works of art you didn’t get before, or on a deeper level.—Chris Allen.

Time2: The Epiphany; Time2: The Satisfaction of Black Mariah

Writer/Artist: Howard Chaykin
Additional Art:
Ken Bruzenak, Steve Oliff, John Moore, Richard Ory
First Comics - $7.95 each (though totally out of print)

is a comic I’ve waited more than twenty years to read a second time. I’m not kidding. Me and this book have a history, but it’s one with a huge gap in it. I bought these Howard Chaykin comics when they came out back in 1986. I had read his Shadow miniseries from DC, and was just discovering American Flagg!. My first issue of that was the Special, the one that introduced Time2, a crossover between Chaykin’s most popular series and his new creative adventure. I remember reading it on a Sunday morning at my mother’s. I was 14 and about to go to my first Creation Convention in Los Angeles. Guests were Jo Duffy, John Romita Jr., and Howard Chaykin. I arrived with my copy of the Shadow TPB and the American Flagg! Special in tow. I talked to Howard about his new book, and he pulled out the entire first graphic novel, a huge stack of art boards. He told me to take a look, said he hadn’t showed it to anybody outside the studio before. I hadn’t yet learned the word “plotz,” but plotz I did.*

There were two Time2 graphic novels, stand-alone stories that also worked together to build a larger narrative. They were published by First Comics in 1986 and 1987, and they are in a format we don’t see that much anymore. 48 pages, squarebound, full color, measuring 8 1/2” by 11”. Costing $7.95 a pop, they’d have eaten up most of my weekly allowance on new comics day. Both my copies are signed, including an inscription from Richard Ory on the second one. “See you in Hell! (But in a nice way of course.)” Today they feel like rare artifacts. When was the last time I even saw these books anywhere? 1987 would have been the year of my first San Diego Comic Con, and if Howard Chaykin wasn’t a special guest that year, he was the next year, because it would have been right around then that I went to a special hour panel spotlighting him. I remember he refused to sit in chairs on the stage, instead sat on the lip of it so he was closer to the audience. He talked about a lot of things, including where Time2 fit in his canon.

He looked out at the crowd — and in my teenaged brain, right at me — and basically said, “I don’t think anyone here is old enough to even understand that book. Time2 is a middle-aged man’s book. You’ve got to have gone through some stuff to really get what it’s about.” And this is why I spent two decades not re-reading Time2. I thought about it from time to time. These books survived many moves, traveled from California to Oregon, often winked at me from my shelves. The cover of the first volume, The Epiphany, is still one of my favorites. But I was waiting. I had to go through some stuff first.

Well, stuff’s been gone through, I’m heading toward the age equator, and now that I’ve spent a couple of hours getting reacquainted with Time2, all I can say is, “Holy geez god what the — WOW!” I know I strain the boundaries of hyperbole here, but these two books are like some kind of lost masterpiece. How is it that these aren’t constantly being talked about? How is fandom not collectively rattling some cages to get these comics reprinted? More people should know about this! Time2 is truly one of the weirdest, craziest, most gonzo pieces of sci-fi pulp fiction you’re ever going to come across. Howard Chaykin has created a unique and fully realized world. It’s the type of thing that the Europeans get a lot of praise for doing in their books, but only a guy born in Newark, NJ, raised in the latter half of the 20th century on comics and jazz and nutso 1960s dreams of a whacked-out future could have come up with Time2.

It’s an American creation the way hardboiled detective novels and film noir are American (despite the latter’s fancy French moniker), the way bebop is American, the way comics have always been American. Not in any flag-waving sense, but in its dirty rebel spirit. Time2is the tale of a future overcrowded with neon lights and advertising. It’s a mash-up of art deco design, the seediness of old-school New York, and a cynicism about the idea of a better tomorrow. It is simultaneously nostalgic for a past Chaykin knows never was and a future that can never be. As with any period of human history, man and woman alike are concerned with eternal youth and living forever. They currently have two options: Deja-Voodoo, which will make you an undead zombie, or Reincarnimation, which transfers everything you are into a robot that looks just like you. Neither is perfect, and both have caused civil rights problems and stirred up the populace that still lives normally. In fact, The Epiphany opens with robot-related deaths. First, there is a killer on the streets, a kind of Jack the Ripper calling himself Mr. Fix-It that is dismantling prostitute robots (the nomenclature for the ’bots is “devoidoid,” and the hookers are called “taxi dancers,” because you pay to take a ride). More important, though, is a has-been saxophone player and nightclub owner named Cosmo Jacobi, who entered into a suspicious suicide pact with his mechanical lover. It’s this death that causes the hero of Time2 to return to town after six years away. Maxim Glory was an artist who mastered in the Kinetic Arts, a metal-and-gears style of sculpture. He was famous for a series called “Prime Narrative” (I love these names). Maxim got himself in trouble with the local Jewish gangsters and had to go on the lam, leaving his girlfriend, a reporter named Pansy Matthias, to nights of loneliness and his main man Cosmo to take the rap. Now that Cosmo is dead, Maxim has returned. He doesn’t believe his buddy would kill himself. It’s a pretty straight-up potboilin’ film noir plot, but Chaykin goes all out with it.

Time2: The Epiphany is loaded with characters and concepts and storytelling devices strung together in a delicate narrative that Chaykin pulls as tight as he can, stopping just before the threads snap. In addition to the characters that step in and out of their own story, he drives the exposition with a talk show host named Diogenes Pilgrim, a riff on Walter Winchell who would actually be right at home on the radio and cable news today. (A prescient Chaykin has him on Kineo, a device that appears to be a melding of radio and early TV.) Pilgrim provides a holier-than-thou voiceover to the proceedings, while three strutting hepcats share the gossipy word on the street. The two choruses trade off throughout The Epiphany, and it’s a little disappointing that Chaykin didn’t make these elements as central in the second book, The Satisfaction of Black Mariah. Chaykin had explored a lot of similar storytelling techniques in Flagg!, though most people either really experienced it the first time or felt it was perfected by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns (also published in 1986). Well, they’d be a bit off the mark; Miller used the media commentary and other devices well, but Chaykin had set the precedent. The style was perfected right here in Time2. These books are like ground zero for so much innovation we take for granted today. Open it to any page and just look at how Chaykin lays out his panels, how he constructs each unit. He does so much within the space, hooking the reader’s eye from the first panel and using the art and the balloons to lead him or her down in all manner of patterns, always ending up at the bottom right and kicked up to the next page.

For my money, Ken Bruzenak is the all-time champion of comic book lettering. There are words everywhere in Time2, including panels filled with background effects. I can only assume that this was all done by hand. There’s a reason Brian Michael Bendis was excited to get Bruzenak on Powers, and if you look at the way Ken and Howard arrange their balloons, it’s obvious there would be no Brian Bendis without this book. If you look at the complicated page layouts, you see there would be no J.H. Williams III. The odder Vertigo books, the ones with conspiracy theories and alternate realities and future societies (namely, stuff without superheroes or fairies) now seem like homage. Whether a direct influence or not, he great things those guys are doing — what we’re all doing — started right here. Hell, Maxim’s sculptures even look a hell of a lot like Paul Pope’s Martian Meks in THB! The Satisfaction of Black Mariah takes us deeper into the politics of Time2. Maxim has returned for good, robot rights are at a boil, and some sexed-up androids are violating unsuspecting humans — much to their satisfaction, mind you, but it leaves them dead. The main offender is a police car, the titular Black Mariah, whose front grill is designed for oral pleasure. Mariah is the car of the top cop in the 2, a scary-looking Celtic bog monster named Bon Ton MacHoot. (Didn’t I tell you this book was crazy?) All the while, Cosmo’s “widow” is getting more action than she wants, and Pansy can’t get any, because Maxim keeps getting distracted. Both volumes of Time2 are hormonally charged and ribald.

Though American Flagg! was certainly not for the innocents, Chaykin was clearly using the more expensive format to take this book to areas that the more traditional periodical would not allow. The double entendres and even the more up-front sexual dynamic most definitely went over my head back then. Given that the most steamy relationships I had likely seen in funnybooks prior were in X-Men comics, I wasn’t really ready for a demon masquerading as a robot going down on a gunsel. (And I certainly wasn’t ready for Chaykin’s full-on smut comic, Black Kiss, due for a reprint from Dynamite in May.) In fact, Howard was right. I wasn’t ready for Time2 back then. I needed to take some time away from the 2 the way Maxim did, get myself sorted out before I could come back and set up shop. Perhaps that’s why the series doesn’t get the same action as his other books from the period. American Flagg! was cutting-edge satire and science fiction, Black Kiss was designed to shock and titillate, but Time2 was demanding. The surface style was appealing, but also convoluted and clearly a mask for much deeper themes. There is some heavy-duty stuff going on here. Chaykin is talking about the artistic process and living with one’s mistakes, about the clash of old-world superstition and new-world technology, about learning not to care about the stupid crap and also how to deal with relationships as an adult who actually knows a thing or two—again, heavy-duty stuff you’ve had to live through to appreciate. Is it possible that it went over everyone’s heads? And did Howard take these books away from us as a result? It makes me think of when the Who released “I Can See For Miles” and got so angry at the record-buying public for not getting how good it was, Pete Townshend declared them unworthy**. If this is the case, I hope somewhere down the line Howard Chaykin will give us all a second chance.

* (Digression 1: Years later, when Richard Ory, who worked on the books, and I ran into each other, he made fun of me for still telling the above story. “You’re going to be an old man, drunk in the gutter, clutching your bottle. ‘I was the first person to see Time2!’” Well, guess he was right.)

** (Digression 2: This was repeated years later when Blur got so pissy about “Popscene” not charting, they left it off the UK edition of their best album, Modern Life is Rubbish, which itself could be a subtitle for Time2.)

Jamie S. Rich is the author of many novels and comics. His best known are perhaps his collaborations with artist Joëlle Jones: the romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her and the pulpy detective story You Have Killed Me. The pair are due to release their third Oni Press team-up, the rude teen-witch comedy Spell Checkers, created with artist Nicolas Hitori De. You don’t have to have been through stuff to understand it, except maybe having gone to high school. Follow Jamie at his blog, Confessions of a Pop Fan


Guest Reviewer Month: Roger Green on Marvel Masterworks: The Sub-Mariner, Vols. 1 and 2

I’m delighted to kick off Guest Reviewer Month here at Trouble with Comics with a post by Roger Green, keeper of the FantaCo flame and all-around excellent human being. I’ve written before of buying comics from Roger and his fellow FantaCo folk back in the 1980s and what an honour it is to have gotten to know him during this, The Age of Blogging, so I won’t tell that same old story again. I will just say that Roger is one of the smartest, most thoughtful people I know, and I’m thrilled to have him here on Trouble with Comics, sharing his thoughts on a little corner of his own comics history. Look for more guest reviews as April unfolds.

— Alan David Doane

I didn’t start collecting comics until I went to college. Oh, I’d buy a random Richie Rich or Archie, and I’d manage to get my hands on an odd Superman issue or two; he usually seemed to be dealing with a half dozen different forms of kryptonite.  But it didn’t take.

Jump to 1971. My friend from virtually the first day I met him on September 12 was Mark.  And Mark, as peculiar as I found it, collected comic books, specifically Marvel Comics. Even weirder, I soon started collecting comic books, starting with Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1, Red Wolf #1, and Sub-Mariner #50. I really lucked out on the latter, for most of the next dozen issues were drawn by the great Bill Everett.  Unfortunately, Subby ended with issue #72, but even before that, I had discovered a nascent back issue market where one could buy old comics via mail order.

Eventually, I bought issues back to #1, encouraged by love-of-my-life-at-the-time, who was a huge Namor fan; it was either his buff bod, his pre-Spock ears, or his mixed race heritage. (I have a picture of her in a Sub-Mariner T-shirt, somewhere.) But then I discovered that even his recent past had started, not with Sub-Mariner #1, but with something called Tales to Astonish. So eventually, I picked up THOSE issues, #70 to #101, which Namor shared with the Hulk.

And I thought I was done. But no. There was this one-off book called Iron Man and Sub-Mariner. Tales to Astonish #101 was followed by Hulk #102, just as Tales of Suspense #99 was followed by Captain America #100, and I loved the arcane numbering system; it made me feel like an insider. But apparently Marvel wanted to stagger their rollout of four new titles, so one last shared issue before SM #1 and Iron Man #1 was put out.

I sold the bulk of my comics in 1994, in no small part because I’d just finished graduate school and I didn’t have a job yet. Unfortunately, those issues of Sub-Mariner were among them.

So when I somehow got on Mile High Comics’ mailing list and saw a bunch of Marvel Masterworks on sale last year, I ended up buying a couple. The Sub-Mariner: Volume 1 contains a story from Marvel Comics #1 from 1939 (!) by Bill Everett; Daredevil #7, which came out a few months before Namor’s run in TTA in 1965; and TTA #70-#87, most of which were written by Stan Lee, penciled by Gene Colan, and inked by either Everett or Vince Colletta. Volume 2 covered TTA 88-101, during which Stan Lee passed the writing torch to Roy Thomas, and Bill Everett penciled about half the stories, with inks largely by Everett and Dan Adkins; Iron Man & Sub-Mariner #1; and Sub-Mariner #1.

I must say that it took me back to a point where I really loved comic books, was excited about outcome of the storylines, and long before most people even thought of comic books as an “investment.”   This was years before I ever worked at a comic book store, so I didn’t care how the book sold except that it move enough copies to keep coming out. My GOODNESS, it felt good to see these old friends again; really good.

Roger Green blogs daily at Ramblin’ with Roger.