What Are You Reading? | Stargirl, the Beatles, psychics and more

See what the Smash Pages crew has checked off their ‘to read’ list lately.

Welcome to What Are You Reading?, our weekly look at what the Smash Pages crew has been reading lately.

This week’s edition is ripe with not only nostalgic looks at the past, including some that go all the way back to the 1940s, but also at the future of comics by the bright stars of today and tomorrow.

Let us know what you read this week in the comments.

Shane Bailey

I’ve been reading so much this last week, if this quarantine is doing anything positive, it’s giving my reading time a big boost. In the past week I’ve read The Dark One, Paul is Dead, Fire Power, Justice League “Justice/Doom War,” Young Justice “Lost in the Multiverse,” Batman: Last Knight on Earth, Star Bastard, Remnant, Vlad Dracul, The Spirit: The Corpse-makers, Star Wars Volume 2, another volume of Lumberjanes and the original Secret Wars. Whew. I don’t have time to talk about them all, but here I go with the important bits…

Brandon Sanderson’s Dark One by Jackson Lanzing, Collin Kelly,  Nathan Gooden, K. Michael Russell And World Design & Vault Comics: I had no idea what to expect going into this book, but I enjoyed the feeling of getting into something completely new. It took a while to build everything up, but the book explained things wisely, piece by piece, so when you do find out what is really going on, you feel like it’s earned. You feel like you know the characters and the danger they face is real. You worry about them.

Even though they telegraph the twist a bit, that’s not really what the book is about, so it doesn’t matter much.  It’s about not just blindly accepting destiny. It’s about changing your path and not accepting the story others write for you. It’s about how the bad guy isn’t always bad when you look at it from another angle. It’s dark, it’s beautiful and it’s got me wanting to read more.

The art and design of the book and its characters is magnificent. It feels like its own thing but draws little elements from elsewhere to make things feel a little familiar. I see shades of Pepe Larraz in Nathan Golden’s work, if people don’t see him as a star yet they will soon. Speaking of stars, K. Michael Russell does a great job of setting the feel of each scene. I really enjoyed how he colors the armor of the dark one, making the red look menacing but dialing it back when he shows emotion. There are reds and blue tones that tie the whole book together. I would highly recommend giving this book a try if you’re ready to jump into a new, fleshed-out fantasy world. It’s a fun adventure that’s different enough to make familial ideas feel fresh and exciting. Jump in, feel a bit lost again and figure out where the narrative will take you.

Remnant by Michael Roslen, Karly Engracia, Davi Comodo, Sean Rinehart and Source Point Press: This is the first book by Source Point Press I’ve read and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a quick, one-and-done story of three generations trying to colonize Mars. It’s full of cool ideas that could be stories all on their own, but mostly it’s about the struggle to try to build life on a planet that doesn’t seem to want it, and they succeed, but not in the way that they thought. Without spoiling the book, it’s got a bit of a downer of an ending, but I admire the guts it takes to be honest and say that not every story has a happy ending. I think that’s where the strength of this book lies, even if it’s not the best time to read a story like that.

Justice League by Scott Snyder: Let’s talk about this book and Scott Snyder. I really like his work, but lately, there’s a problem, and it’s affecting DC as a whole. It really, really stands out here. You see, Snyder and DC have an “And then …” issue. It’s really evident in Snyder’s Justice League. So first there was Metal, which was cool, I guess, but Metal didn’t end, instead Snyder said “And then…” And then there was Justice League: No Justice. Then that didn’t end, so Justice League was launched. But each arc ended with an “And then…” instead of an ending — it’s a book filled with ever-increasing stakes, and trade after trade just never gives you an ending a stopping point, a place to rest, a resolution. Then you come to the big ending and you think it’s finally going to end and then, and then, and then, and then… to be continued in Death Metal #1. @#$*%!

That said, Snyder and the wonderful artists he always works with are all really good. The arcs are full of great, wild ideas about the DC universe and manage to make the DC universe feel huge. Even Batman feels magical. He’s just way better at miniseries because he has to end them. You give him the whole universe, and it’s just too much for him; he wants to keep it going when all we want is a resolution. Just a full story to mark down as a classic, we don’t get Batman: Year One (or even Court of Owls) with his larger work, instead we get the Clone Saga.

Paul is Dead by Paolo Baron, Ernesto Carbonetti and Image Comics: This was a trip! I loved the art on this story and, not being a Beatlehead, I had no idea the rumor about Paul faking his death and getting a lookalike to take over for him. This was such a fun story and it was nice to read something that just tackled on thing and ended. It was a complete. It’s such a beautiful little package, full of emotion, loss, anger and weirdness. Definitely pick this up.

Fire Power by Robert Kirkman, Chris Samnee, Matt Wilson, Russ Wooton and Image Comics: Oh my god this book is beautiful. I just want Samnee and Wilson to work together forever on everything. They are the best!

That out of the way, this is a fun adventure full of old tropes, but you know what, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. You can just tell an adventure story with familiar elements and just have fun. That’s what this is. You just let yourself go. It’s one of those movies you watch over and over again. It’s comic book comfort food. It’s those old sweats you wear that are just broken in and perfect. It’s hanging out with your best friend and just relaxing. That’s kinda what I need right now.

That’s it for now, next time I’ll talk about Young Justice, Batman: Last Knight on Earth, Star Bastard, Vlad Dracul and The Spirit: The Corpse-makers, and I’ll check in on what my son thought about the original Secret Wars.

Tom Bondurant

The Stargirl TV show has given me an incentive to catch up on Stars and STRIPE, a comic I hadn’t read before (gasp!). The series packed a lot into a mere 15 issues (July 1999’s #0 through September 2000’s #14), including team-ups with the Marvel Family and Young Justice, a flashback with the Seven Soldiers of Victory, and a brief JSA sequence. At the time I think Geoff Johns’ other DC credits included the Day of Judgment miniseries, a Beast Boy miniseries, and co-writing JSA with David Goyer. In fact, he seems to have gone straight from the end of Stars and STRIPE to Flash. So this is early Johns, free of the weights of expectations and reputation.

The art, from Moder and inker Dan Davis, is well-suited to the small-town high school setting. It blends the superheroics well with the awkward teenage angst, and the gangly Courtney Whitmore embodies that balance. Still, the series is more interested in super-fights than high school ones, and specifically it wants to have Courtney live up to her heroic legacy. To that end you can see supporting characters and assorted subplots doing slow burns, only to be truncated when the series ends. In particular, Courtney’s stepbrother Mike is away at military school for much of the series, and when he does come home he throws a fit about not being groomed for his own heroic career. Likewise, the mystery of Courtney’s real father turns out to be underwhelming; and it serves mainly to reinforce what a great guy her stepfather (Pat Dugan, now using the STRIPE battlesuit to fight crime) really is.

Coming into Stars and STRIPE from the TV show, you can see similarities in the macro-plot and characters, and I will say that the show seems to have sanded off a lot of the series’ rough edges. (It will also be interesting to see if the show’s first season ends anywhere close to where the series did.) Overall, it was a fun read, although now it seems even more prototypical and/or aspirational than it must have been 20 years ago.

After that I went even further back, to the original Justice Society adventures from All-Star Comics #3-#6 (Winter 1941 to August-September 1941), reprinted in All-Star Comics Archives Volume One. These stories were written by Gardner Fox and drawn by the artists responsible for the characters’ solo adventures, and that fact really plays up how different these stories must have been. Both in concept and format, the Justice Society must have been like nothing else on newsstands 80 years ago. For readers used to a few short stories in an anthology or (for the big stars like Superman and Batman) a quarterly issue, the 58-pagers in All-Star must have seemed like Tolstoy. Still, the artistic changes served a few purposes. Familiar artistic styles probably helped ease readers into the larger JSA adventures, as opposed to (for example) getting used to how Mike Sekowsky or Dick Dillin drew all the Justice Leaguers. Multiple artists also served the publisher’s production needs. Finally, those artists also reminded readers, however subtly, that this is what they would get if they bought the other books where those characters appeared.

For me, though, those Golden Age artists were largely new; and their work was kind of revelatory. The framing sequences were done by E.E. Hibbard, who I think drew the Flash; and he had a more open style without a lot of details. However, often that would go into the very thin lines and heavy blacks of a Bernard Baily (who drew Hourman and the Spectre) or Sheldon Moldoff (who drew Hawkman). I spent a lot of time looking at these pages and wondering about the time spent on them. As for the stories, so far they haven’t gotten too high-stakes. In issue #3 the JSAers spend their time telling each other about their solo adventures. Issue #4 is the first real team mission, as they each get orders from the FBI to shut down stateside Nazi efforts. In issue #5, the anonymous mob boss Mr. X – whose identity becomes obvious the moment he appears – orders his crews to target the JSA one by one; and in issue #6, the JSA has to look for the missing Johnny Thunder so he can be initiated into the group.

That last story goes into detail about the JSA’s membership qualifications. Back in the day, individual members pretty much appeared only in anthology books – Adventure, All-American, More Fun, etc. – except for Superman and Batman, who by this time each had earned a solo title. To avoid overexposure, if you had a solo book, you could only be an “honorary” JSAer. Thus, when the Flash was popular enough to add All-Flash to his feature in the Flash Comics anthology (which also featured Hawkman and Johnny Thunder), he had to go to honorary status; and that opened up a spot for Johnny Thunder. This was all explained in detail by the JSAers to the readers at the end of #5, and honestly it was pretty endearing. It took me a while to get into these stories, but now I am eager to see what’s next.

JK Parkin

You ever had one of those moments where you realize two creators whose work you really enjoy got together and made a miniseries, and you just discovered it when the fourth issue came out? That moment happened to me this week. I mean, I’m the one blogging about comics publishing news here, and I completely missed I Can Sell You a Body — not only when it was announced, but also when the first issue came out. I apparently suck at this.

So anyway, I’m playing catch-up on this charming noir-esque miniseries by Ryan Ferrier (D4VE, Criminy) and George Kambadais (The Black Ghost, The Double Life of Miranda Turner), which I bought off comiXology this weekend. Denny Little is a former TV psychic who is in debt to the mob, and he’s trying to figure out how to get out of his little predicament while also dealing with all the ghosts who are constantly wanting his help from the other side. Oh, and there’s a woman who he has fallen head over heels for. I just finished the second issue, and things with the woman look like they’re getting mega-complicated. Ferrier writes protagonists that you probably wouldn’t want anything to do with in real life (see: D4VE) but still makes them sympathetic and worth cheering for. Kambadais is coloring his own work here, and he’s bringing a bright palette to what could be considered a fairly dark story, which really helps set the tone. I can’t wait to finish this one up tonight.

Speaking of comiXology, From Beyond the Unknown is one of those DC Digital First comics that actually, technically first appeared in print, in one of the Walmart 100-Page Giant issues. The first issue had a somewhat mediocre Green Lantern story, but the second issue, which came out this week, has two tales — an impressive Kamandi the Last Boy on Earth story by Tom Sniegoski and Eric Gapstur, and a fun Legion of Super-Heroes story by Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund. These are both stand-alone stories, where anyone picking up one of these in Walmart could have grasped what was going on, but I found it very interesting that the Legion story is not set in current continuity (the Bendis continuity in the current series) — it’s actually set back before the Giffen “five years later” reboot issues but sometime after the debut of the new Invisible Kid. That’s a timeline I know well; my older brother was a big fan of that era, so I’ve read a lot of it, and the characters here are obviously from that iteration of the team. Why they would show up again in a Walmart anthology is strange, but hey — I really enjoyed the nostalgic trip it offered. And Dawnstar should always have real wings.

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