Welcome to What Are You Reading?, our weekly look at what the Smash Pages crew has been reading lately — including comics from the past, present and future.
Let us know what you read this week in the comments or on social media.
I spent the week reading Volume 15 of The Amazing Spider-Man Marvel Masterworks, so I haven’t even made it to my pile of new comics yet.
I’ve been slowly reading my way through the classic Amazing Spider-Man stories through the Masterworks series and very much enjoying it for the most part, as wacky as it often gets and as infuriating as Peter Parker’s personality can sometimes be. But Volume 15 is where I would probably stop if I didn’t already have the next few volumes (bought all at once during a sale a long time ago).
In the introduction, Gerry Conway talks about the blowback Marvel received from fans after the death of Gwen Stacy. Conway had already cut back on convention appearances for other reasons, but Stan Lee loved interacting with the fans and quickly got tired of angry readers blasting him in person about Gwen. So he demanded that Conway fix it by bringing her back.
It’s a super clunky story about clones and it makes no sense. (It also sets the stage for even more stories about Spider-Man and clones that make even less sense, but that’s a complaint for another day.) The mysterious villain The Jackal is revealed to be someone we thought was a benign side character, which is shocking, but his explained motive is ridiculous and raises big questions about his earlier appearances and activities. It’s clear that the series is desperately scrambling. As weird and goofy as the first fourteen volumes sometimes are, they also feel like their creators are having a great time. This volume contains a lot of wheel-spinning. It’s not surprising to me that Conway left the series shortly after.
There are some nice moments though. Peter has finally accepted Gwen’s death and has begun dating Mary Jane Watson, something the series was building to in the previous volume. That makes Gwen’s “return” really bad timing. Or it would if the series wasn’t so eager to sweep Gwen offstage as roughly and quickly as it temporarily brings her back on. This could have been an epic romantic triangle of Casablanca proportions, but there’s no real drama to the way it plays out.
Ned Leeds gets more to do in this volume, which is kind of nice. His and Betty Brant’s upcoming wedding gets more attention and Ned also helps Peter investigate the reappearance of Gwen.
Non-Jackal villains in this volume are interchangeable threats just to provide action though. There’s a new bad guy called Cyclone; Scorpion, Tarantula, and Professor Smythe and his Spider-Slayer robot all make reappearances that are generic and unnecessary. Some of them are actually working for the Jackal just to keep Spidey on his toes. But the last couple of issues collected here introduce a shadowy, high tech mastermind that could prove interesting in future volumes.
A couple of other dangling plots are a) a homeless guy who’s being stalked by an unseen attacker, and b) Harry Osborn is out of the hospital and acting super weird. He doesn’t seem to remember anything about being Green Goblin (or that Peter is Spider-Man), which is good except that he also seems overly hyper and carefree. I’m concerned about him and a little miffed that none of his friends seem to notice. This mystery is enough to make me want to keep reading; I just hope the Return of Gwen was a temporary misstep and not a sign that Spidey’s best adventures are all behind me.
This week started off with my wife and I finishing the excellent Hap & Leonard series adapted from Joe R. Landsdale’s books so I had to read the comics too. It was interesting seeing where they went different directions and what they chose to add or leave out. I usually like the books better in the end, but while this was really good, I think the additions of characters and situations in the show really accentuated the story. It’s still worth giving it a read and it’s one of the best buddy crime stories I’ve read in ages.
After that I was on a crime “spree” so to speak so who better to turn to than Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, modern masters of the genre. I read Bad Weekend, My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies and their newest release Pulp. Of course I loved them all, but there’s something about Pulp that sets it apart, telling the tale of a man trying to move away from the violence of his past, but realizing he can’t escape it and still do what’s right for his enemy turned friend. You know how all these stories are going to turn out, but it’s the path that they walk to get there that Brubaker and Phillips are so good at telling.
On the superhero side of things I’ve been reading the underrated Wolverines by Charles Soule and various artists. This series was released directly after the Death of Wolverine and I don’t think I gave it enough of a chance the first time. It involves Daken, Mystique and X-23, who are some of my favorites, as well as Sabertooth, Lady Deathstrike and some new characters introduced in side series following Wolverine’s death including a character possessed by Wolverine’s enemy Ogun. Soule and team make good use of the Marvel Universe at large and Wolverine’s past to craft an interesting story that speaks to Wolverine’s life as well as pushing these characters forward with some great moments. I really think it helped that none of these characters were in a regular series at the time. I’m glad I gave this another chance because it’s a nice big chunk of comics that really spotlights the work you can do on side characters that are allowed to change when more popular characters can’t.
Finally, my kids are reading every night too. My son is finishing up the Birth of Venom trade with me while my two daughters and I are reading Raina Telgemeier’s excellent relaunch of The Baby-Sitter’s Club with the same characters as the new series. It’s nice to read a good mix of the new with the old.
Well, I read Empyre #4 … and yeah, there’s no way to get around this. Please avoid the next paragraph if spoilers bother you, but do know that the issue is fine, just fine, and keeps you interested in the next issue.
SPOILERS: There’s a certain amount of disbelief we agree to when reading fiction, let alone comic books. If Iron Man shows up in new armor and says he made it off panel, unless we are given clear and distinct clues otherwise, we rely on our past understanding of Tony Stark to say, “Yeah, that seems reasonable” and don’t question this to continue reading the story. Yes, storyline twists can occur to surprise and shock us, but that means we’re giving up that disbelief to understand a character misdirected us or outright lied; worse, we have an unreliable narrator and the writer lied. What I’m getting at here is there are so many lengthy throne room discussions, could we have not skipped a couple to hint that Jennifer Walters is dead?!? Yes, if you’ve been reading Immortal Hulk you might have already surmised that the Leader knows that Jennifer Walters died and yes, there’s a panel or two where she comes back from the Cotati and seems different, but the story moved on. It didn’t highlight to us that this was important or significant, it just asked us to roll along so we, the reader, suddenly get whiplash from finding out the Hulk is now some plant zombie monster and that a popular character from the Avengers is deceased. It’s a pacing problem that is only made worse by the shocking(?) reveal at the end of the issue that Wiccan and Hulkling are married. As a story beat, I think that I would have switched up our wedding and funeral so that the death seems more final and weighty, while the off-screen marriage would have given us some more context to the court politics of the Kree and Skrull. Now there’s just more time to ponder why Wiccan didn’t accompany Hulking to become the figurehead of two empires and when this wedding occurred (they just put out Strikeforce this week) and now I’m out of the flow of the overarching narrative. I wonder if this will all read better in trade.
Alright, on to better narratives: Giant Sized X-Men: Fantomex is exactly what I wanted out of these larger one-shots: a focused character study to re-familiarize the reader with the more complicated X-People in our neighborhood. Personally, I wasn’t into GSXM: Magneto or Nightcrawler as character studies but more solo adventures for those looking for their favorite heroes or just a comic that won’t tie into too many other books. But GSXM: Fantomex is much more; this is a history lesson of sorts, taking your from the origins of the character (quite literally) through the Marvel Universe up to now, showing off the depth and breadth of the Weapon Plus project and Jean-Phillipe’s complicated relationship to it. It’s very Grant Morrison in its surrealism, adding in Rick Remender’s work from Uncanny X-Force days and blending them together to show you how this character works. Rod Reis should be given a cookie bouquet for his incredible work depicting the contained reality of the world, dipping into both Escher-like gravity for the landscapes and Phil Noto-like faces for the human element. This is by far my favorite comic I read this week, and I hope you can spare the $4.99 to check it out for yourself.
I agree with Carla’s spoiler-y comments on Empyre #4. Both of the “off panel” things she mentioned really took me out of what has otherwise been a really good event series. It didn’t help that news stories about the issue’s ending started hitting the Wednesday morning it came out; they built up some excitement for the issue, and I was disappointed that we didn’t get an August wedding.
Anyway, let’s forget about Empyre for a second while we talk about Hedra.
Hedra is a one-shot released by Image Comics, and it’s by Jesse Lonergan, whose previous works include All Star, Joe and Azat, and Planet Paradise, which he syndicates on his Patreon and will be released as a graphic novel by Image later this year.
So what is Hedra about? It’s the story of nuclear war, a rocketship trying to blast off into space, the astronaut piloting it, aliens, robots who fly through space … but that’s really secondary to the innovative art and layouts, which are the main attraction for this wonderful comic. It’s a wordless story that’s all about the grid — the 35-panel grid that Lonergan uses to create a remarkable science fiction experience akin to 2001 or a Moebius story.
It’s one of those comics that comes along every once in a while and reminds you of what’s possible in comics. Lonergan’s sense of design and space makes everything work within the confines of a 5 x 7 grid, while still moving things forward.
Hedra actually started life as a 48-page comic printed on newspaper sheet, turned 90 degrees so it read like a traditional book. The Image edition is a more standard format, of course, but it still reads as something special and different. Each page can be poured over for smaller details, but also can be taken in as a whole. This one is highly recommended, especially if you’re into creators who are interested in expanding the boundaries of the comics page in new and exciting ways.