Welcome to What Are You Reading?, our weekly look at what the Smash Pages crew has been reading lately.
This week is the Smash Pages version of A Christmas Carol, as Tom looks back at a series from the 1980s, Corey talks about three recent graphic novels and Brigid heads into the future with advanced reviews of three upcoming projects. I guess that makes me Jacob Marley.
Let us know what you read this week in the comments or on social media.
This week, one of my breaks from Future State was the first arc of Thriller, a 1983-84 DC title which, if I remember the house ad correctly, boasted that “you can’t read it fast enough.” I never thought that was very appropriate, since Thriller was almost deliberately obtuse. Created by Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor Von Eeden, the book was about a group of highly-skilled and/or super-powered operatives called the Seven Seconds. They were led by the wealthy Edward Thriller, whose wife Angie had been turned into a disembodied, nigh-omnipotent being. The rest of the group – Angie’s “seconds” in her fight against evil – included her brother Tony, a marksman who refused to kill; Crackerjack, a teenaged thief; the genetically-engineered priest Beaker Parish; the superintelligent Data, who lived in a thought-controlled limousine; White Satin, who could control you with a touch; Proxy, master of disguise; and Ken, the normal-guy reader-identification figure. Fleming apparently wanted to convey an anything-goes pulp-magazine feeling, and Von Eeden similarly just let it all hang out. In that respect it probably was better just to jump into Thriller and get swept along by the current. Von Eeden’s layouts were unconventional but not hard to follow, once you got used to them; and Fleming’s scripts sketched out the characters while dumping a lot of plot and backstory.
For example, the first arc spans issues #1-4 (November 1983-February 1984), and is essentially about the terrorist Scabbard – so named because he sheathes his sword in a skin-pouch on his back – planning to assassinate the President (who happens to be Data’s dad, not that it matters to the plot). Scabbard kidnaps Tony and Angie’s mom to force Tony to do the job, but of course Tony refuses. Ken also has history with Scabbard, namely that he killed Ken’s brother (and indirectly further exacerbated Ken’s daddy issues). Issues #1-2 introduce the players, while #3-4 deal with the assassination attempt. I didn’t mention earlier that it’s 50 years in the future and the President is taking the transcontinental high-speed railroad from New York to Los Angeles, so among other things Tony gets to drop from a helicopter onto the speeding train. This happens at the beginning of issue #4, and it’s pretty cool.
There’s a decent amount of “pretty cool” stuff in these four issues, including Ken and Beaker’s dream sequence where Ken gets to re-enact his dad’s war-correspondent death; a sweet scene where Angie and Tony share a meal with their mom; and the breathtaking double-page spread early in issue #1 where Angie’s beatific face stretches across the night sky and convinces Ken not to jump off a bridge.
I read Thriller a couple of years after it had been cancelled, piecing together the run from countless back-issue expeditions, and it has always seemed both promising and unrefined. Fleming left the book after issue #7, and Von Eeden after issue #8, replaced respectively by writer Bill DuBay and artist Alex Niño; so the book got a lot less distinctive as a result. Therefore, these first four issues are probably the purest expression of what Thriller could have been. If nothing else, they demonstrate the enthusiasm with which these creators approached the book.
Thriller is dense but not impenetrable. While it throws out a lot of ideas and bits of character business, it’s basically a straightforward adventure story featuring a wildly eclectic cast. If it had come along ten or even fifteen years later, it might have been a mid-level Vertigo hit. Instead, it stands out as one of DC’s weirder, wilder books from the days when the direct market encouraged such experimentation.
Reckless by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, who really need to just get married already based on their long history of collaborations, was a nice surprise. I’ve found myself getting burnt out on tough-guy narratives. Maybe growing up surrounded by ’80s action movies has worn out the concept for me. But the manly man who can beat up everyone, out-think everyone, and be more emotionally distant than anyone, has been pretty thoroughly done, and I don’t know if I can personally glean anything new from such wish fulfillment characters. Ethan Reckless seemed to be pitched as a pulp hero in that vein so I wasn’t super excited to read this but Brubaker and Phillips deserve a look, and I’m glad I did. While he certainly does have the emotionally distant thing down, it’s actually tied to a head injury, which impairs his thinking and memory. While he is a good fighter, he’s a somewhat sloppy fighter who sometimes loses and gets pretty badly injured. And while he is fairly smart, he’s outsmarted here and finally puts all the pieces together when it’s basically too late. The story has exciting twists and is a visual feast of 1980s Los Angeles. I was glad to have my expectations subverted.
Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy by Daniel G. Newman and George O’Connor is a graphic novel that launched a new imprint from First Second Books called World Citizen Comics. This line of nonfiction graphic novels is meant to “educate, entertain, and empower the citizens of tomorrow.” I was really excited about this book but I might’ve been expecting too much out of it. There is excellent information and guidance here, but it is meant as a first step, not as a one-stop handbook all its own. Truthfully, each chapter covers a topic that could probably be an entire book or even series of books on its own, so this is probably more on my expectations than on what the book delivers. But I kept finding myself wanting a deeper dive, particularly on exactly how to get the proposed solutions implemented. Some of the best moments were spotlights on examples of a local or state organization that got a new law passed that expanded transparency and voter rights. Learning more about the twists and turns of those journeys would be invaluable. Or maybe due to varying state and local laws, the precise “how” varies too much for that depth of coverage to be useful. Even so, this is an eye-opening graphic novel that is extremely eye-catching and easy to read thanks to George O’Connor’s layouts and artwork. It impressively walks a balance between getting overpowered by the immense problems this country faces that are outlined and doe-eyed optimism that change for the better is always possible and inevitable. One other book, Fault Lines in the Constitution, has since come out from this new imprint, and two more are scheduled for this year.
Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang, Gurihiru and Janice Chiang is a wonderful 3-part story based on a 1946 story arc, “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” from the classic radio show The Adventures of Superman. The pair of artists that make up Gurihiru make this jump off the page. It’s absolutely wonderful to look at. The colors are vibrant and the characters all expressive, unique and immediately identifiable. Yang wonderfully connects the tale of a Chinese family moving into Metropolis and facing bigotry with Superman learning about and accepting his own history. What at first seems like two unrelated threads come together perfectly as a theme. This exploration of Superman’s early days in a 1946 still-growing Metropolis was incredibly refreshing and I would love a sequel or ongoing series that follows on from here. Roberta Lee is a fantastic character and I hope some version of her is incorporated into more Superman stories. But perhaps the most impressive part of this story is how the story incorporates straight-up evil bigotry with more passive, everyday bigotry. The way people talk to Roberta and her brother Tommy, and the way Tommy talks about himself as a way to fit in, is in some ways more uncomfortable than the main villain because that kind of casual racism is what gives way to the rise of the Klan. The story is supplemented by a 3-art essay by Yang, who talks about his own personal history, the history of the real world Ku Klux Klan, and Superman’s development by two Jewish sons of immigrants. It’s a beautifully designed presentation for a worthy story.
This week I read a couple of children’s comics that have a little something extra. Chef Yasmina and the Potato Panic, by Wauter Mannaert, is one of a flurry of recent graphic novels about kids who love to cook. Yasmina whips up gourmet meals for herself and her widowed father from vegetables supplied by two friends. When a stranger comes to town and bulldozes the friends’ vegetable gardens to set up a factory farm, Yasmina is reduced to stealing produce from the mysterious woman who has a whole farm on the roof of their building. Meanwhile the factory farm is pumping out potato snacks that are not only addictive but cause the people who eat them to act like dogs. Yasmina and her gardener friends unravel the mystery and (spoiler alert!) turn the evil factory owner into a potato. Mannaert, who is Dutch, is also the artist for the graphic novel Weegee: Serial Photographer. Yasmina is totally different but it carries over Mannaert’s sly humor and eye for detail, and there is some spectacular cartooning here, with cutaway views of Yasmina’s apartment building, panoramic urban scenes filled with diverse people and neighborhoods, and of course, the teeming gardens tended by three quirky gardeners. There’s also a great section in the end where Mannaert talks about the development of the book. It’s intended for kids aged 8-12 but there’s plenty here for an adult to appreciate. I got an advance copy; it will be published in February by First Second.
Yehudi Mercado is a versatile cartoonist, but the polished, minimalist style he adopts in his graphic memoir Chunky is the exact opposite of Mannaert’s crinkly, detailed realism. It’s just as effective, though. He draws his characters, including his younger self, his family, and his imaginary friend Chunky, with a few deft curves that clearly delineate not only their physiognomies but also their personalities. Mercado’s mother worries about his weight, and his father wants his son to be an athlete, but young Yehudi is chubby, klutzy, and possessed of only one lung, thanks to a childhood surgery. He wants to please his parents, but he wants even more to make people laugh. Like the drawing, the storyline is minimal but powerful. He fails at most things but succeeds at football, thanks to his size, but both Chunky and his father realize that it’s taking him in the wrong direction. Mercado manages to be both relatable and hilariously funny, and he ends each chapter with a sports-commentator-style recap that puts the events in perspective. This was another advance copy—HarperCollins will publish it in July—but it’s worth marking your calendar for, because Mercado’s humor and his deft cartooning make it a true all-ages read.
I’ve been a fan of Chris Samnee’s art ever since I can remember, so even though I don’t read many monthly comics, I grabbed the advance copy of issue 1 of Jonna and the Unpossible Monsters, which is written by Samnee and his wife, Laura. This first issue sketches out the premise of the story: Jonna, a young girl with the energy of the Lumberjanes’ Riley, disappears and her sister Rainbow goes looking for her. This is all set in a village that has seen hard times since the monsters appeared. Samnee has a way of drawing a complicated scene and making it look simple, and that’s on full display here. Pick it up for the art and enjoy the story as well. Oni is publishing this as an ongoing series; it was supposed to launch last year but got delayed, so the first issue will be out in March.