What Are You Reading? | ‘Empyre,’ ‘Wicked Things’ and more

See what the Smash Pages crew has been reading lately.

Welcome to What Are You Reading?, our weekly look at what the Smash Pages crew has been reading lately — including comics from past decades and some from the past week.

Let us know what you read this week in the comments or on social media.

Carla Hoffman

Maybe it’s because these two event books are coming back to back but I’m kind of seeing some synergy between Empyre and Dark Knights: Death Metal.  The first issue gave you a good set up, a taste of the energy of the story and its themes; the second issue is for laying down the rules and boundaries exploding out of the first one. Which means Empyre #2 is kind of slow. It’s a dialogue fest of who people are, what sides are there to this war, when you last saw certain plot points (shout-out to my favorite comic etiquette, the little yellow box with an asterick that tells you what comic they’re talking about!), etc. etc. and I just feel like it slowed down the stakes and took me out of the moment.  Instead of seeing a dangerous equal to the Skull and Kree, why were people referring to Quoi as the “Avengers baby” like that was a concept of any import?  Was Carol Danvers officially Kree now and not half-human or fully human and given partial DNA from Mar-Vel?  Are there a Kree Accuser Corps because groups in space are now by default part of some kind of ‘corps’?  It’s an important book for the ongoing narrative, but I can’t say it was a thrilling one.

I was only able to pick up two tie-ins (thanks, Diamond), but of those two I would highly recommend Empyre: X-Men #1 (of 4).  I’m not saying it makes sense (wait, was Avengers: Children’s Crusade or such a year ago in canon?), but any nitpickers of canon will have to put their hands up and say “Woohoo!” on this rollercoaster of a miniseries.  The X-Men have a clear purpose to be connected to Empyre as they have toured space before and are currently living in a somewhat plant-based society (thanks, Krakoa!), so the Cotati would come after them in a big old plant war supremacy.  But they probably weren’t expecting mutant zombies.  Or mecha grandmas.  I’m not giving anything else away so do have fun, find the issue for yourself and make sure to preorder whatever crazy ride it sends us on next.

Because of my very long term project of organizing all my comic books (thanks, some 20-odd years working at a comic shop!), I was drawn to an old 2004-2005 mini-series called Bullseye’s Greatest Hits.  Written by Daniel Way with art from Steve Dillon, it’s a small slice of Daredevil’s constant nemesis’s life and career as the deadliest man in the Marvel Universe… or is it?  Bullseye himself is an unreliable narrator as he tells his story to an NSA/CIA hostage negotiator in a veritable fortress designed to keep the lethal criminal at bay.  And for the most part, the comics are dialogue with flashbacks to whatever part of Bullseye’s life he’s conjuring up and that’s where the artwork comes in to make this five-part series so compelling. Dillon’s faces are human, meaty and ugly when they need to be so that we know this isn’t the four color world we’re used to; everyone has some darkness to them and when violence breaks out, it feels visceral on the page. Expressions range from furious foaming rage, to smug satisfaction glinting in an eye, to a panel that haunts me to this day. Just Bullseye, explaining his brutal murder of Elektra to others as “I met a girl once.  She died.” The sweet satisfaction depicted on Bullseye’s face as he remembers this shocking moment tells you everything about the kind of killer he is and why Daredevil has fought him tooth and nail for so long.  It’s a great book, quick read and scratches that itch for vicious ultra-violence once yearns for from time to time.

Michael May

Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal

I’ve sort of avoided Ms Marvel up to now for two reasons. First, her giant-hands super power freaked me out. I understood that that wasn’t her only super power, but it’s the one that usually showed up on promo artwork and… eew. 

The other reason is even worse. I have a character flaw that often leads me to distance myself from whatever the Hot New Thing is that everyone’s talking about. It’s not rational and it makes me slow getting to a lot of parties. 

Realizing that neither of these are good reasons not to read a series that’s been recommended to me by lots of people I trust, I finally checked it out. And yeah, it’s as good as they said.

It’s lovely that it introduces me to a culture that I’m not very familiar with, but that wouldn’t mean much if Kamala Khan herself wasn’t so wonderfully spunky and likable. The supporting cast is great, too, mostly by being super… well, supportive. All in different ways – and some of them challenging to Kamala’s goals – but there’s a great atmosphere of love that permeates the first volume. Except for the evil Inventor and his henchmen, of course. Those guys need taking down.

Definitely going to check out the next collection. Sorry I’m late.

Wicked Things #3

Speaking of being late to things… I also missed out on Giant Days. But when the Wicked Things spin-off was announced about teen detective Lottie Grote… well, I’m a sucker for teen detectives and am all about Max Sarin’s beautiful and hilariously expressive drawings. The mini-series is half done as of this past week and it’s not just gorgeous, it’s surprisingly twisty even for a mystery story. Sarin and writer John Allison don’t just create a mystery and then point Lottie at it. There are all kinds of personal stakes and side quests that have completely pulled me in. I’m already dreading the end, but lucky for me I have a bunch of Giant Days volumes that I can explore when Wicked Things is over.

Shane Bailey

This week I went to the comic book store with my daughter and while she got a bunch of Spider-Ham and Web of Spider-Man comics, I picked up all but one issue of The Light and Darkness War from Epic Comics, a creator owned division of Marvel Comics way back in 1989. This book is by Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy. You may know them from Star Wars: Dark Empire, the book that launched Star Wars comics at Dark Horse in the ’90s.

This book really has that same feel both in the art and the writing, which is a good thing. It’s about a veteran from the Vietnam War and the way he tries to live after a near-death experience in which all his squad mates were killed and he had both legs amputated. He visits the memorial, sees their name, and has flashbacks to the moment they were killed, there we find that they were ambushed and his pals “went into the light” but he wasn’t able to for some reason. He wakes up and is nursed back to health. Later he’s driving home with his girlfriend and collapses at the wheel, next thing we know the doctors are saying he’s in a coma and he sees that same light, but this time he gets pulled through it and wakes up in another world and sees his squad again fighting these sci-fi looking zombies on a flying boat made of stone.

And that’s where issue 1 leaves you. I don’t have issue 2, but I’m about to jump into the 3rd one. The art and coloring by Cam Kennedy is really well done, particularly since all the color is hand painted, before digital. The way Cam works he seems to leave room for color instead of filling in blacks in areas and it makes this really interesting effect. I’m really digging this book so far and flipping through the other issues it seems to have a really interesting part sci-fi/part fantast world. The designs really remind me of 2000AD, probably because of Cam’s history there. I’ll let you know more as I get farther into it, but for now, give this one a chance if you see it in the back-issue bins. If you want to know more about the series, there’s a whole website devoted to it at http://lightanddarknesswar.com/.

Tom Bondurant

This week I re-read Jughead Volume 1 by Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson, collecting the first 6 issues of Jug’s solo series from 2016 or so. Being a big fan of Zdarsky’s humor books and Henderson’s work on Squirrel Girl, this was pretty much comfort food. Zdarsky structures each issue with a real-world A-plot which is informed by a fantasy B-plot, so it lets the overall story go in any number of directions. This came out around the same time as the Mark Waid/Fiona Staples et al. Archie redesign/relaunch, but naturally it’s a lot more goofy. You can tell that Zdarsky and Henderson are just having a ball with these characters.

I also read a handful of Gerry Conway/Dick Dillin Justice League of America issues from 1978, as part of the Justice League of America: The Wedding Of The Atom And Jean Loring hardcover collection. They run the gamut from awkward to thrilling. The first is “2000 Light-Years To Christmas” from March 1978’s #152, which is more of a classic Gardner Fox “find these three things” overlaid with a Three Wise Men motif. (Spoiler: The three wise extraterrestrials help defeat the bad guy.) This issue is important to JLA generally because it introduces Traya the orphan girl, who Red Tornado eventually adopts. Traya finds one of the McGuffins and starts blasting people with it unintentionally, so Reddy intervenes, comforting her and proving to both of them that there are still caring people in the world. I say that without ironic detachment, because in this issue Reddy’s affection is contrasted with the villain of the piece, Major Macabre.

He was not one of Gerry Conway’s finer creations, to say the least. A Peruvian strongman with a handlebar mustache and a cringeworthy accent, his toxic masculinity was apparently a product of his “culture.” Today, of course, that description looks insensitive at best. Sample dialogue: “I have the strangest sensation, as though these items were repelled by my touch – cringing as if alive! Bah! A foolish thought, like the fancies of women! What has a mucho hombre to fear from things such as these?” I mean, Major Macabre is clearly wrong about many things, and the issue also includes an evil American corporate polluter to keep him company; but maybe there was a better way to explain his mindset.

Conway and Dillin made up for Major Macabre with a couple of extra-good issues a little later on. June 1978’s “Under The Moons Of Earth” (#155) combined good old-fashioned apocalypse (a second Moon causes earthquakes and volcanoes and shatters the ice caps!) with a little mystery (what do Moon 2’s residents really want?) – and best of all, the attitude that of course the JLA can handle things, given time to figure it all out. Wonder Woman lassos icebergs and coordinates the disaster relief like a boss; Batman poses as a moon-man scout; and the moon-men surrender to Green Lantern and Superman immediately, once they see how powerful the Leaguers really are. Top it off with a couple of twists to play with the reader’s sympathies, and you’ve got an excellent example of the Satellite League at its best.

The next issue was one that Young Tom read and re-read over the years, July 1978’s “The Fiend With Five Faces!” (#156). Beginning with a worn-out Aquaman beating back a couple of hooligans on his way to the Oahu JLA teleport tube, it’s an “ancient gods try for a comeback” story which takes advantage of the JLA’s global responsibilities. This one is noteworthy for its eclectic teams: Atom, Batman, Phantom Stranger and Red Tornado investigating the antagonists’ temple; Black Canary, Elongated Man and Superman trying to stop a pair of gods from starting a ground war in Europe; and Flash and Green Lantern having to deal with a nature-god gone mad. (GL’s solution is effective, but pretty hardcore too.) All these issues were part of JLA‘s “Giant” period, when the book boasted 34-page stories; so sooner or later everybody got a good scene. Here, Black Canary silently calls one of the gods a “conceited ass” before blasting him point-blank with a sonic scream; Atom uses physics to stop a water-creature; and only the combination of Red Tornado and Phantom Stranger’s powers can free the renegade gods’ jailer. Still highly entertaining, even after all these years.

Finally, I started re-reading American Vampire by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque; but so far I’ve only gotten through their first story, “Big Break.” It’s the origin of series lead Pearl Jones, who (spoilers!) joins the undead as an extra in 1925 Hollywood. Snyder and Albuquerque throw so much effort into the day-to-day of Pearl and her roommate that you almost forget her dark fate. And “dark” it is: I had indeed forgotten how eerie and unsettling Albuquerque draws the vampires, all silhouettes except for beady glowing eyes and thin, wide fanged smiles. Albuquerque refined this approach as the series went on, but it never got any less scary.

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