What Are You Reading? | ‘Avengers,’ Batman, ‘Bleed Them Dry’ and more

See what the Smash Pages crew has checked off their “to read” list lately.

Welcome to another edition of What Are You Reading?, our weekly look at what the Smash Pages crew has been checking off their “to read” list lately. You can play along in the comments if you wish.

Now here we go …

Carla Hoffman

Sadly, we were out of Mad Magazine #13 and while I probably could find a digital copy, Mad Magazine is best experienced in hand, on your porch stoop, in front of 7-11, or on the john.  I just can’t read it any other way.

But I did pick up real live Marvel Comics in a real live comic book store (Metro Entertainment – Santa Barbara’s best in comics, games and toys!) so I was able to read Avengers #33, and boy, do I have a lot of thoughts.  This is part one of the Age of Khonshu and, as a childhood fan of Egyptian mythology and an adult fan of all the bizarre tales you can get from Marc Spector, I was here for this.  For the first part of what seems like a grand plan by the Egyptian God of the Moon, his trusted servant Moon Knight travels all across the Marvel Universe to essentially beat up and take the mystical powers from … some Avengers, we’ll say (the current roster seems flexible, as far as I know).  Iron Fist, Doctor Strange, a sad cameo from Ghost Rider that I’ll get to later, Black Panther, even Thor falls to the will of Khonshu and his master plan to save the Earth from the Devil.

The good news is that Jason Aaron knows how to write epic conflicts between gods and the supernatural.  While the basic concept might be a little awkward, Aaron writes Moon Knight with all the glory, mystery and insanity that he deserves.  As absurd as it may seem for one man to go up against Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, you’re always reminded that this is a man fueled by a God.  This is divine fervor that can’t be judged by our mortal concepts of good or bad, it’s a higher power at work that we’ll have to learn more about through the Age of Khonshu, and I’m excited to see what comes of the plans of gods and men.

Bad news is the art could be better.  The opening fight between Iron Fist and Moon Knight is supposed to be bathed in the light of this blue Supermoon but it just comes off as muddy except for this odd pastel yellow highlight.  Where Aaron takes the time to list out Iron Fist’s moves, you can barely read them because of the thin white text on action images.  Drawing dynamic action is super hard and extremely important to martial arts, and it does convey the moves, but the story demands a grander fight than we’re seeing on the page.  Static shots are fantastic, from Doctor Strange fighting a horde of mummies in his foyer to the army of Khonshu outside Wakanda, but motion and epic scale just seem a little flat to me.

Also discouraging is Robbie Reyes getting ONE PAGE as Moon Knight steals his Hell Charger OFF PANEL.  Boy, they done you dirty, Robbie.  Again, this is part one, I’m sure Ghost Rider of all people will get due respect from Jason Aaron, but I hope that respect comes soon.

All in all, it’s a start.  Wasn’t the most exciting beginning to what is most likely an epic tale of supernatural forces beyond our control and comprehension, but it got the job done.  New readers might enjoy it more for the scaled down cast of characters and straight-forward problem at hand, older readers may enjoy getting to see Moon Knight be involved in something that isn’t just “crazy color-swapped Batman,” but don’t come in expecting to be knocked into space by the lead-in or even to understand why it’s even an Avengers comic.  All in due time.  Trust the moon.

Tom Bondurant

I was glad to have new comics this week, but today I want to talk about old comics from a couple of collections. First is Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s four-part “Mud Pack” storyline, which ran biweekly in Early September-Late October 1989’s Detective Comics issues #604-607. It closes out Legends Of The Dark Knight: Norm Breyfogle Volume One, and that’s what made re-reading it a little odd this time.

When Grant and Breyfogle (and initial co-writer John Wagner) started on Detective in February 1988’s issue #583, their stories were decidedly different than what was going on in the main Batman book. For one thing, the new team wanted to create some new supervillains, because they weren’t that inspired by the old ones. (To be fair, Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo were just about to debut the KGBeast in March 1988’s Batman #417; but then they started building up toward Fall 1988’s infamous “Death in the Family” arc.) Accordingly, over the next several months Grant, Wagner and Breyfogle introduced the Ratcatcher, Cornelius Stirk, the Corrosive Man, the Ventriloquist, and Mr. Kadaver. Their Batman was a nocturnal prowler, made dynamic and expressive by Breyfogle’s quickly-developing style; and his adventures often started with something as simple as a sidewalk encounter.

After taking a break to make room for Sam Hamm and Denys Cowan’s three-part “Blind Justice” (which ran in Detective issues #598-600 as part of Batman’s 50th anniversary), Grant and Breyfogle returned with a three-parter guest-starring Etrigan the Demon. All things considered, it wasn’t too much of a stretch, and Etrigan fit pretty well into the creative team’s sensibilities. (Grant would later write a Demon ongoing series, drawn by Val Semeiks.) That brings us, at last, to “The Mud Pack,” wherein three Clayfaces – murderous ex-actor Basil Karlo, the protoplasmic-handed Preston Payne, and the shape-shifting Lady Clayface – team up to take down the Darknight Detective. It’s all a ploy set up by Karlo to give him the others’ super-powers; but they didn’t count on Batman’s old Outsiders teammate Looker getting involved.

“The Mud Pack” is a good Batman story, with genuine danger for our heroes (Batman ends one issue out of his gourd, wide-eyed and drooling) and pathos for a couple of the villains. Again, though, what makes it odd is its mainstream nature. Grant and Breyfogle had gone out of their way to emphasize the strangeness of Batman’s nighttime patrols, but this four-parter swerved back into some pretty traditional territory. Not only did Batman have (gasp!) a good relationship with an ex-colleague, but in a Breyfogle-drawn nightmare sequence he fights the Joker, Riddler, Penguin, et al. Lady Clayface also disguises herself as Robin, who was a no-show in the Grant/Wagner/Breyfogle Detective even before he died. Of course, Breyfogle would go on to draw Tim Drake’s first appearance in his regular costume, as well as arcs featuring the actual Joker and Penguin; and Detective itself wasn’t about to lose any of its idiosyncratic edge. Still, “The Mud Pack” was a sign that Grant and Breyfogle couldn’t avoid the Bat-mainstream for much longer.

Otherwise, I have come to the long-awaited Steve Englehart portion of Justice League of America: The Bronze Age Omnibus Volume Two. It comes after a fairly good Cary Bates-written Adam Strange two-parter in January-February 1977’s JLA issues #138-39 (drawn by mainstays Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin), and because #139 was the start of JLA‘s “giant” phase, it starts in that issue’s second story. The contrast in styles is pretty obvious: everybody’s got a new set of character traits (Flash is self-conscious, Wonder Woman is overcompensating after having to “re-qualify” for the team, Atom and Aquaman feel inadequate) and there are constant continuity references. Englehart’s first two-parter (issues #140-41, March-April 1977) features the Manhunter cult which Jack Kirby had just introduced in 1st Issue Special, and it links them to the Green Lantern Corps by referencing a couple of old GL stories. The overall effect is like watching a simmering pot start to boil, and I’m excited to re-read Englehart’s run all over again, probably for the first time in decades.

Shane Bailey

I’ve read A LOT of comics this week. First I want to talk about a couple of new books I read.

I was invited to read the first two issues of Bleed Them Dry from Vault Comics, a new ninja sci-fi vampire book by Hiroshi Koizumi, Eliot Rahal , Dikke Ruan, Miguel Muerto and Tim Daniel. The best way I can describe it is, a police procedural meets Blade Runner, but with vampires — and I loved every second of this book. It is absolutely worth picking up. The art is amazing, with stunning futuristic cityscapes, violent choreographed fights and interesting looking characters. Speaking of the characters, they were really easy to get into, and I immediately wanted to know more about them after finishing the books. The second issue has a bit of an info dump, but it was handled well and didn’t seem too forced. If these first two issues are any indication, this could be my favorite Vault book this year, but they keep one upping themselves so we’ll see.

The second new comic I read is an advanced copy of Join the Future #2 from Aftershock Comics with Zack Kaplan, Piotr Kowalski, Brad Simpson and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. It’s a great story about technology and how the lack of it can be both a freedom and a curse when others have it. The first issue ended with a huge cliffhanger, so I’ve been itching to get back into this series and find out what happens to the small backwoods town when the big tech city comes to absorb them into it. Comforts and money go a long way to getting people to give in, but there’s hope as the main character Clem, after all the heartbreak of last issue, still has honor and stands for something. She’s out for justice. This sci-fi meets western story is great and while the idea is a trope, it’s handled very well and has some unique way of looking at this tried and true story. I highly recommend giving it a try. Zack is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers, and the art team does a wonderful job showing the dichotomy between the technology and nature. I’m really looking forward to the next issue.

Besides that I’ve read a ton of back issues. I’ll run through those quickly:

Hulk Visionaries Peter David v1: Todd McFarlane’s first few issues were very rough going, but you can see the beginnings of where both he and Peter would go with the Hulk. It really didn’t start looking like Todd’s Hulk until the X-Factor issues, though, when that trademark brow started jutting out.

Uncanny X-Men Superior v1-2: I didn’t read this when it came out, but I really enjoyed it. Magneto’s team of mutants that stayed away from X-Haven during the Terrigen Mist cloud era was interesting. Bunn and team really excelled at the character work here.

X-Men Blue– Another Bunn X-Men joint that also was a missed gem during this era. I think the book really hit its stride when the main team actually went into space though. I would have loved to see more of the b-team with Polaris, Daken, the Raksha and the others.

Scooby Doo– Just in time for Scoob!, you can find 200 issues of Scooby Doo comics for free on Comixology and I’ve been reading these fun books to my kids every night. They absolutely love them. My favorites are the team-up books where they meet various DC characters.

New Mutants v1 by Zeb Wells and team- I really like Wells work but the characterization of the New Mutants here seemed off to me. The focus on Legion really lost me too, though it sets up later Legion stories where he uses his personalities differently. I really wanted to like this one but I didn’t. I’m still giving v2 which deals with Necrosha a try.

Doctor Strange Essentials: A Separate Reality – The stories collected here by Roy Thomas, Engleheart, and others are great, but the art in this book is amazing, P Craig Russell, Barry Windsor Smith, Gene Colan, Marie Severin, Don Heck, Frank Brunner… It’s just legendary. Come for the art, stay for the story.

Ed Piskor’s X-Men Grand Design v1-3: I really enjoyed these volumes and the look back and slight re-imagining of X-Men history. The only point where I really thought it got a bit too weird is the last volume as I couldn’t quite gel the order of the stories with my memory of them and it just sort of ended without dealing with Rachel and Bishop’s trip into the past. It feels rushed compared to the other volumes, like there was more story to tell but not enough room.

I’ll have a lot more to say about different X-Men eras next week. This is such a great time to be a fan of comics both old and new. The amount of collections out there are unprecedented and there’s new books coming out every day for literally any type of genre you want to read. I love it!

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