What Are You Reading? | Red Goblins, celestial avatars, Klan smashers and Texas blood

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

Like I said last week, summertime is the right time for crossovers and comics. This week brought us a taste of Empyre, Marvel’s big crossover event featuring the Avengers, The Fantastic Four, the Kree, the Skrulls, the Blue Area of the Moon, the Swordsman and all that crazy cosmic space action Marvel fans have come to know and love. You can see Carla’s thoughts on it below, along with a list of comics Shane has been buying for his kids and Tom’s thoughts on two politically minded books from DC.

You can tell us what you’ve been reading in the comments below or on social media.

Shane Bailey

Lately my kids have started wanting to read more comics. My little one has always been into them, but now the older kids are as well. So I let them pick out their own comics to read on comiXology Unlimited.

My 9 yr old son picked Amazing Spider-Man: The Red Goblin by Dan Slott and Stuart Immonen, and he loves it. He wouldn’t stop commenting on how crazy scary Norman Osborn is, how it was gross when Carnage bit the head off a rat, and during one issue when the Goblin had a captive and was interrogating him, he wondered aloud over who it was, making guesses and gasping when he found out who it was and that Norman knew who Spider-Man was. It’s great seeing him get excited at things that are old hat for me. It made me appreciate those moments more.

My 10 yr old daughter picked Lumberjanes and she LOVES them so much that we’re already on volume 3. There’s like 14 volumes and at this rate we’ll burn through them all this month. She loves Ripley and laughs at her antics even after we put down the book. She’s started yelling “Holy Kitten!” at random now. She even gasped when Jo got turned to stone one issue, so the cliffhangers absolutely work for her. Seeing her laugh at these books with such unbridled joy is so pure.

Last but not least is my 5 yr old girl; she is a huge fan of Star Wars, so we started reading Jason Aaron and John  Cassaday’s Star Wars run. When we finish issues, she begs me to read one more issue. When Luke is temporarily blinded by Boba Fett in Ben’s home, she audibly yelled, “He can’t see Daddy! He can’t see! Oh no! We HAVE to read one more!” So we always read one more. I can spoil her if I want to!

Oh yeah, I guess I’m supposed to talk about what I’m reading. I just bought Jeff Lemire and Greg Smallwood’s Moon Knight since it was on sale, and I can tell you, that book really ramps up the creepiness. It’s fun to be a little lost at what’s going on in a book again and just figure it out as you go just as the characters do. It feels like reading comics as a kid again. I’m  going to read some more now and get lost all over again. My kids taught me well this week.

Carla Hoffman

It was a Marvel Comics Bonanza for my reading pile this week, and four books in particular really stood out this week.  All four have bombast and that mighty Marvel melodrama we’ve come to know and love, but have been expertly crafted for the modern day.

First we have Empyre: Avengers #0 by Al Ewing and Pepe Laraz, the start of this summer’s epic crossover and naming conventions that will frustrate my long box curation.  Coming into this new Kree/Skrull Alliance that will wage war on our heroes without decades long knowledge of Celestial Madonnas and galactic empires is actually feasible!  This #0 issue takes its time to give you the Cliff Notes version of The Kree/Skrull War, Avengers: Celestial Quest and their like without bombarding you with exposition and walls of text; instead, thanks to the internal narration from Tony Stark, the drama unfolds through emotion and how all these pieces make the Avengers feel.  It’s less about the gigantic space army coming to get them, it’s about how united they all stand together to protect others’ right to grow.  It’s about how they connect to the Celestial Avatar and his crazy garden on the moon, about how the past can’t be shaken and how man is different from a God.  This might sound mean, but trust me that it’s the best praise I have to say that Pepe Larraz’s artwork is entirely serviceable to the grand epic he’s starting here.  Splash pages are just detailed enough, faces have characteristics that separate them from one another, and transitions from one motion or moment to the next are smooth and natural.  I can’t say that he’s making a huge mark for his style in this hefty double-sized issue, but that’s a good thing.  It’s a lead in to a greater adventure.

Speaking of grand adventure, we have Thor #5 from Donny Cates and Nic Klein, who take us to the precipice of the end of everything.  Again.  Maybe it’s just the amount of comics I’ve been reading lately, but the destruction of the end of all existence is just a yawn to me right now; contrasting this with Empyre: Avengers #0, the grand event book feels more personal and dangerous than a God-Herald God-Blasting a God-Destroyer at the end of God-Mageddon.  That’s not to say the issue is bad; Donny Cates writes a hell of an Asgardian Epic with many twists and intricate turns to his cosmic tale, with all the language that comes with such a tale.  There are grand explosions through time and space, dastardly betrayals of mind and soul, things you want in a Thor comic.  You don’t come to the God of Thunder to watch him do his laundry, you come to watch him take the mantle of All-Father and battle foes to the ends of time and space and here we are.  I should talk about Klein’s pencils but really, the gold star of this issue goes to Matt Wilson, the “color artist” because boy howdy is the colorwork in his issue ART.  It feels rough when it needs to, lines fading from one color to the background as we look in on Asgard, big bright bursts of raw energy in his highlights, deep shadows that are still detailed in the monster from the depths … it is a delight to watch his work unfold from one page to the next.

You can tell it was my birthday this week because Immortal Hulk #34 by Al Ewing and Butch Guice feels like a story just for me.  Not in its main character, the life and times of Samuel Sterns aka The Leader, but in that it’s a tale of comic book history, woven through the Marvel Universe for a collective understanding in the present.  Comics can feel disposable in their continuity as one timeline jumps into another, always rewritten on a whim or the needs of the story at hand; if a creative team can reach back and create a throughline from a character’s origin and sell us that it’s all meant something this entire time?  That’s a chef’s kiss moment right there. This is actually a great jumping on point for Immortal Hulk if you’ve missed out on the last glorious 33 issues, because it gives you a complete fable of the life of one of the Hulk’s most enduring villains and a taste of the philosophy behind this epic run.

Last, but sure as hell not least, is Marvel Snapshots: Captain America #1 by Mark Russell and Ramón K Pérez.  I can’t believe this book has been in production for months now because it feels like the story contained therein was written with the present day firmly in mind. How a book could be so crafted toward the zeitgeist of 2020’s civil unrest with understanding and care from what feels like ages before now. Like all Marvels stories, this is how our title character is seen through the eyes of the everyman and understood in their language, and you really can’t look at Captain America without looking to the country for which he stands.  Where all the previous books had floor to ceiling danger in grand extravagance, this single story stands on its own with a horror and despair that feels a little all too real with the stakes being painfully personal.  Don’t worry, there’s no ‘Green Lantern being asked about the orange skins and purple skins’ type of preaching, no moment of angry revelation that the system is stacked against you or that the less fortunate are forgotten by the heroes, just that it takes them all a little while to remember.  That we’re still the home of the brave.  And that we are always going to need people to put in the work.

Tom Bondurant

This week I finally got around to finishing Superman Smashes The Klan, written by Gene Luen Yang and drawn by Gurihiru. Better late than never, because this book is utterly charming and quietly powerful. Set in 1946, it follows the Lee family, who are Chinese, as they move into Metropolis. The story is about their confrontations with the terroristic Klan of the Fiery Kross, but it’s also about the extent to which they’re expected to assimilate into the dominant (i.e., white) culture. Indeed, the same is true for Superman’s part in the story. Early on he gets his first exposure to Kryptonite, and it triggers visions of Jor-El and Lara, who interestingly enough are humanoids with stereotypically alien features – big eyes, antennae, greenish skin, etc. This means there’s a healthy amount of “be the best you you can be,” but it’s packaged alongside the question of just who you’re meant to be. Accordingly, Yang repurposes Superman’s origins to complement Roberta and Tommy Lee’s character arcs, and uses the “peak Superman” as the story’s emotional climax.

Yang and Gurihiru adapted SSTK from 16 episodes of the 1940s Adventures of Superman radio serial, which also saw the Lee family meet the Man of Steel and fight the Clan of the Fiery Cross. Both radio play and comic portrayed the Klan not as criminal masterminds, but more like grifters participating in a hate-driven pyramid scheme. (Apparently the Klan required membership dues for its activities.) It’s among the story’s most clever elements, and that’s saying something. The radio series’ arc is credited with arresting the real KKK’s development in the postwar United States, but as Yang notes in the series’ text pages, the work still isn’t done. Nevertheless, it’s a testament to art’s persuasive abilities that the radio drama succeeded. One hopes that Superman Smashes The Klan will have its own significant effect on our society.

Moving on, I’m glad I re-read Tom King and Barnaby Bagenda’s Omega Men: The End Is Near collection a few days after Superman Smashes The Klan. Otherwise I might have gotten whiplash. Omega Men is pretty effective itself, but as an examination of political power struggles and the desires which fuel them. It begins when Kyle Rayner, in the unfortunately-named role of the White Lantern, decides to enter the forbidden Vega system to try and broker peace. (The White Lantern is so named because white light contains all the other colors, so Kyle can use any emotional source to power his ring. He still thinks of himself as a Green Lantern, adapting the GL symbol and reciting the GL oath.) Captured by the Omegas, he spends the whole series struggling against the binary Alpha/Omega religion to which the solar system subscribes.

Omega Men sticks mostly to a 9-panel grid (except for one issue pencilled by Toby Cypress) and chapter-concluding quotes (all from philospher/psychologist William James), which makes it seems very much like Watchmen. That gives it a good bit of starkness and inevitability, and sets the often-bloody set pieces against a literal framework. In fact, ultimately Kyle the comics artist describes the role of panel gutters like some shell-shocked Scott McCloud. I read this series in single issues as it came out, so I was surprised at how little of it I remembered. That includes Kyle contrasting his Catholic faith against Alpha and Omega, and trying to find a third way which saves everyone. With that binary belief system informing a whole solar system, though, it’s not easy; so the story’s ultimate villain is able literally to cut through Kyle’s efforts. In the end, Kyle leaves for friendlier, more familiar environs, and the reader is left to consider who was the real “Alpha” of the Vega system’s problems. Was it the Viceroy, as the Omegas believe? Was it the Guardians of the Universe, who prohibited the Green Lanterns from patrolling Vega and its planets? Was it Krypton, whose destruction spurred the galaxy to hoard the element which might prevent other planets from destroying themselves? King and Bagenda don’t offer many answers, but they do make Omega Men worthy of multiple readings.

JK Parkin

Regular readers of this column know that I, like Shane, have been introducing my kid to comics. This week we jumped into the one I’ve really been waiting to show to him — Jeff Smith’s Bone. And the results were … not what I expected. It’s been a log time since I’ve read Bone myself, and those first few pages of FoneBone, Smiley Bone and Phoney Bone arguing about why they were run out of Boneville just didn’t do it for him. I gotta tell you, it was really deflating that he didn’t just LOVE them.

So we switched gears and instead jumped into Bone: Tall Tales, a collection of short stories being told by Smiley Bone to three young scouts (Ringo, Bingo and Todd) about Big Johnson Bone, the guy who founded Boneville, plus some other short stories starring the cousins. Now this he got into, as he loved Smiley Bone’s antics in the framing sequences, and I’m hoping that now that he knows who these guys are, maybe we can revisit the regular Bone series.

As for my own reading, I really enjoyed the first issue of That Texas Blood by Chris Condon and Jacob Phillips. Having grown up in Texas, I have some familiarity with the setting where this first issue takes place, and honestly, it really could have taken place in just about any small Texas town. This is basically the town my parents just moved from, and, 30 years ago, probably the town they just moved to. This first issue is a “day in the life” story about a small-town sheriff getting ready to celebrate his birthday with his wife, while also dealing with the crime in the small town where he lives. Naming your sheriff “Joe Bob” seems like you’re setting up a stereotype, but Sheriff Joe Bob Coates is anything but as he deals with his own uncertain future and the ghosts of the past. It’s a nicely done story about setting and tone and mood and character, even more so than plot. And the creators captured all of that very well here. I’m not sure where this book is going — the next issue kicks off a five-part story, and I’m not sure if it’ll be tied to this or not. But Condon and Phillips have created something special here, so I’m looking forward to it either way.

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