Welcome to What Are You Reading?, our weekly look at what the Smash Pages crew has been reading lately. We’ve got a packed room today, as we talk about comics from the last few decades or so — including old Spider-Man and Milestone Media, as well as newer stuff like Wretches, Batman/Catwoman and King in Black.
Let us know what you read this week in the comments or on social media.
With the announcement of a new Clone Saga coming from Marvel, I decided to dust off one of the other resurrections of that ’90s epic. Yes, Marvel has gone back to this well before. While the original was panned by critics, readers, historians, your mom and just about anyone else who even so much as glanced at it, it did wonders for sales. Maybe people were hate-buying it, but there was a segment of comics fans who have nostalgia for that era of Spider-Man history. Even while I acknowledge it was overly bloated and too much a victim to the whims of marketing, I confess to having some affection for it myself. Despite itself, it was somehow able to wring out some authentic moments. Marvel, liking money and being aware that enough people secretly liked the Clone Saga, have done Clone Saga reduxes before. One of the most significant ones was only four years ago, Amazing Spider-Man: The Clone Conspiracy by Dan Slott and Jim Cheung. Or maybe it’s called Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy. Or maybe just The Clone Conspiracy. Marvel never quite decided. But whatever its official name, it served as a sequel to the ’90s Clone Saga and brought in a number of plot threads from Slott’s lengthy Amazing Spider-Man tenure. The main story clicks along at a great pace, and throws some unexpected twists in while playing with lots of classic Spider-Man mythology. Jim Cheung’s pencils shine throughout with the help of inker John Dell and color artist Justin Ponsor. That team consistently cranks out superhero eye candy. It’s a fun roller coaster ride that shows ideas live and die on the strength of their execution.
With the launch of DC Universe Infinite, I thought I would also take that for a spin with the recent digital reissue of Hardware #1, the 1993 debut of the Milestone imprint at DC Comics. The issue was written by Dwayne McDuffie and featured art by Denys Cowan, Jimmy Palmiotti and Noelle Giddings. It’s a stunning launch, highlighted by the opening scene where a childhood memory of a pet parakeet escaping its cage only to run headfirst into a window serves as a metaphor for the glass ceiling experienced by minorities and women. It positions the comic and the entire line to be about something more than just bombastic superhero adventures. There are rich character backgrounds anchored in the same injustices and heartbreak of our world. Hardware is Curt Metcalf, a child prodigy who grows up into a brilliant inventor trapped in a contract by his mentor, who he discovers is secretly involved with a powerful criminal organization. Curt sets out to take his boss down. I love the premise of a hero secretly operating under the nose of their enemy. Curt is simmering with anger at the trap his life has become. Denys Cowan and Jimmy Palmiotti bring the world, the character and the technology to life. The risk is to fall into the trap of doing another Iron Man or Batman, but the aesthetics of how his armor works, enhanced by fantastic lettering design by Janice Chiang, keeps the book feeling unique. I wish more of the series was available on DC Universe Infinite. I was ready to start binging the series but so far only the first issue is up. Hopefully we’ll get the entire series again soon, along with the rest of the entire Milestone line.
I also finished reading Grafity’s Wall by Ram V, Anand RK and Bidikar. I have the expanded edition from Dark Horse Books, although I couldn’t tell you what’s been expanded or how it’s different from the original edition. Regardless, this is a beautiful graphic novel. The story is immersed in Mumbai and follows a group of young friends surviving on the edges of poverty and crime. Each issue focuses on one of the friends, and as we travel around the group, we learn more about the dynamics between them and the world they are in. The emotional core is universal, making it imminently relatable, but the context is authentically grounded in the unique cultural environment of Mumbai. For American or western readers, this is just not seen enough and rarely seen with this level of skill.
I want to spotlight three different sci-fi books I read this week: We Only Find Them When They’re Dead, Becstar and Wretches.
We Only Find Them When They’re Dead is probably the book with the highest profile as it’s by Al Ewing and Simone Di Meo and published by BOOM!. The style of the book really reminds me of watching Robotech as a kid. It’s got a polished animation look that reminds me of the feeling of watching those old shows and learning about that world. WOFTWTD takes place in a world where humanity is forced to cut apart and strip mine the bodies of gigantic space gods to survive. It’s a crazy, almost Kirbyesque idea, and I love the hell out of it. In this world salvagers fight for rights to each part of the creature and theft is rampant, but punished severely. The temptation for a bit score is still huge. Enter into this world our main characters, a salvage crew determined to escape this life and travel to unknown space to find a living god. It’s unique and exciting in every way possible. I love it.
Becstar by Joe Carello, Lorenzo Colangeli, Joamette Gil and Mad Cave Studios is a crazy sci-fi adventure with interesting character personalities and just plain fun all around. The art is unique as it’s got a playful style for the characters that’s a bit wild, but the backgrounds and rendering in the comic is very detailed. I like it alot. The book is action packed from the beginning and even the exposition filling in the backstory is exciting. The story revolves around the character Becstar that gets caught up in guarding a girl and a relic from her past after her friends death at the hands of another member of her mercenary team she used to run with. It’s one of those first issues that’s so packed with information that it feels like a TPB. Definitely bang for your buck here.
Finally, Wretches v1 by James E. Roche, Salon Farias, Chunlin Zhao, Chas Pangburn and Scout Comics is another action sci-fi tale that’s worth picking up. It’s about two siblings in a world where robot cyborgs are decaying as they get older. Their crew tracks down robot criminals for their spare parts. Meanwhile robots are trying to form their own society and find a cure for their decay. The world building is amazing in this book and all the environments and cities the characters visit are insanely detailed. The world created here feels huge, unique, and lived in. The artwork style here is really suited to this book as the action is well done and all the different robots with different levels of decay have cool detailed looks. You can tell they spent a lot of time getting all this set up before they started on the book. If you want to experience a fleshed out sci-fi world with an interesting premise, unique characters, and a personal story this book is for you.
I have been reading a lot of shoujo manga lately, and I ran across two shoujo isekai titles, which is not something I’ve seen a lot of before. Isekai is the fantasy genre in which the hero is transported into another world, either by being reincarnated or getting trapped inside a virtual-reality video game. In The Dark History of the Reincarnated Villainess, published by Yen Press, the main character Konoha Satou, dies and wakes up inside a story she wrote as a child. She has not come back as the self-insert protagonist of the story, though, but as the villainess the fictional Konoha’s the younger sister, Iana. In the story she wrote (which she remembers only vaguely and when most convenient for the plot), Iana prevents Konoha from marrying her true love, and all sorts of consequences flow from this. So when Iana starts deviating from the written story, all sorts of complications arise. It’s sort of a crazy manga but an entertaining read.
The other one is Fiancee of the Wizard, another Yen title,and the first story arc is complete in two volumes, although it goes on from there. In this case, the lead character, Filemina, wakes up from an illness when she is six years old with vague memories of an earlier life in modern-day Japan. In her current world (the standard vaguely-medieval world of fantasy manga) she’s a nobleman’s daughter. The story follows her romance with Edy, a wizard who is ostracized because of his black hair, which in this world means he has powerful magic; of course, being from Japan, Filomena is not put off by black hair at all. He goes off to wizard school, then to work for the royal court, and because he’s sullen and inarticulate, he never tells Filemina he loves her, but because this is a shoujo manga, she waits patiently for him to open up. What’s odd about this book is that the main character is away from most of the action, although enough happens to keep it fairly interesting. The art is done in a gorgeous, detailed shoujo fantasy style.
Away from the manga world, I’m also reading Teddy, by Laurence Luckenbill and adapted by Eryck Tait. This is a biography of Teddy Roosevelt that is narrated by Roosevelt himself, as if he were giving a lecture, with a lot of flashbacks. This makes for a coherent story, in which Roosevelt tells us what’s important to him and why, with some reflections in retrospect. A lot of graphic biographies jump around from scene to scene with little to hold it together or tell the big story so it’s nice to read one that hangs together so well. The art is simple, with thick lines and a monochrome palette which suits the subject matter well. The book is due out next month from Dead Reckoning, which is the graphic imprint of the Naval Institute Press. If you haven’t checked out their books, give them a look, as they have a surprisingly broad range of subject matter and have pulled in some great creators as well.
This week I read a couple of non-Future State DC books. I would say they were “present-day” books, but one was Legion of Super-Heroes #12. It was written by Brian Michael Bendis, pencilled by Ryan Sook, inked by Wade Von Grawbadger and colored by Jordie Bellaire. Although the Bendis/Sook LSH has had its issues with pacing and a bit of byzantine plotting – see, e.g., Ultra Boy’s family ruling Rimbor – this issue was a tight conclusion to the book’s first year(ish). A lot of that has to do with Sook, charged with choreographing a big fight that took up the bulk of the issue. While Superboy fights Rogol Zaar one-on-one, the rest of the Legionnaires are arrayed against Mordru and his Horraz forces. Sprinkled throughout are moments for individual Legionnaires like Bouncing Boy, the Ranzz twins, Mon-El and especially Saturn Girl, who seems now to be the Jean Grey of the team. Bendis layers some efficient inter-team characterization on top, so it’s not all punching and blasting. An epilogue then teases new threats, including the obligatory “Great Darkness.” It’s the kind of issue that makes you want to re-read the series from the beginning, to appreciate the storytellers’ perspective in putting it all together.
I also read Batman/Catwoman issue #2, written by Tom King, drawn by Clay Mann and colored by Tomeu Morey. It’s also not strictly a present-day book, since it alternates between the present and a charged conversation between senior-citizen versions of Catwoman and the Joker. The present-day material has an eclectic tone, because basically it’s a serious investigation into the Phantasm killing the Joker’s old henchmen, mixed with references to Batman: The Animated Series and other lighter elements like Porky’s Bar. Indeed, Phantasm’s plan is a direct lift from the animated Mask of the Phantasm, and pretty much assumes that the reader has seen that movie. The Phantasm who was plenty spooky in animation is portrayed by Mann and Morey as a spectral assassin, particularly in a silent sequence on the subway.
Lately I have been unhappy with King for using his female leads as manipulative Ladies Macbeth, especially Kalista in Omega Men and Alanna Strange in Strange Adventures. There’s a bit of that in his Catwoman, but it’s not as egregious. For one thing, since much of the issue is about her, it frames her role in events more sympathetically. The issue’s main mystery goes to the heart of the Batman/Catwoman romance; and while it’s predicated upon whether Catwoman did something wrong, it’s rooted in Catwoman’s long-term history. Accordingly, it’s not as big of a turn as the other characters performed. I liked this issue as a continuation of King’s Batman run and I hope it adds constructively to the mythology of both characters.
It’s a terrible shame that the average comic reader believes that you have to read all of the tie-ins to really enjoy Event Book Season; I’ll be honest and admit that it can be the case in a lot of Marvel Universe’s sprawling epics, but it never should be. King in Black has a lot to offer outside of the main title (maybe even too much?) but the story’s core has held solid so far. Let’s look at a few:
Star of the animated screen, Spider-Gwen faces off against Knull’s horde of evil symbiotes in King in Black: Gwenom vs. Carnage #1. The title page NEEDS to be read if you are not familiar with this alternate universe Gwen Stacy, as she has gained a symbiote of her own, just from a different universe. Roll with it. The story is serviceable for a tie-in, blessedly unimportant to the current flow of the main story, so it’s skippable if you’re not into what it says on the cover. But it has enough snappy dialogue and character to make it entertaining on its own. The art by Flaviano is smooth and perfect for flowing between the oozing symbiote goo and the fluid movement of Ghost-Spider herself.
Do like symbiotes? Did you even know about the huge host of them that got pumped out like chromium covers once Venom was a huge hit with fans of drooling maws? Well, welcome to a whole series about them and how they relate to the new status quo under King in Black with King in Black: Planet of the Symbiotes #1. I’m not sure how many issues this is going to last, let alone how many are actually planned, but it’s a very violent series of stories of female-host bonded Scream and another attempt at “Arkham, but Marvel,” Ravencroft Institute for the Criminally Insane for a new symbiote, Plague. I… I did not enjoy reading this; it’s not my thing. It wasn’t my thing in 1993, it’s not now. Neither story told me anything new that I wanted to know or added to the main title in any way, shape or form.
King in Black: Thunderbolts #1: What a great time to bring these guys back! Apparently, Wilson Fisk has the copyright to the team name now so he puts together a “squad” of Marvel villains to go on sort of a “suicide” mission to contribute to the fight against the Knull. It’s what the kids are into these days. However, it does distinguish itself from our competitor by being a very clear-cut and diabolical book with a very clear goal in mind. I won’t say that it’s super-integral to the main plot of King in Black, but there’s a character reveal at the end that certainly checks off the “I wonder what THAT GUY is gonna do” box on the must-read list. Much like the other two tie-ins read this week, I’m not sure how long this is going to last, but I for one totally welcome Matthew Rosenberg and Juan Ferreyra to keep this going once our King in Black is defeated. The art is bursting with style and unique flair, the villains-turned-heroes clever and traitorous as ever and I would certainly recommend it to people looking for something new but well-worn, familiar yet through the lens of the symbiotes.
And that leaves us with this week’s King in Black #3; does anyone talk about how amazing Donny Cates is at pacing? I feel that’s a new award I would personally give the man for the absolutely sprawling epic he’s given us for years. I’m talking since he first pitched Venom to the powers-that-be at Marvel to right now, as you read these words off the computer screen. This is Hickman-level payoff for years of hard work and patience; often with big-picture writers I have to goad new readers in with “Well, wait until the second volume of the trade” or “It starts out slow but really pays off in the end!” Not with King in Black because just admitting the book has an Extremis-power symbiote dragon that absorbs a Celestial’s armor so Iron Man can play Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots over the war-torn streets of New York City… well, it kind of sells itself.
This issue the battle continues in the aforementioned fashion while also taking a more philosophical approach to what could possibly oppose such darkness ending in our surprise reveal at the end of the book. No spoilers, but at this point if Donny Cates’ adds in the Cosmic Ghost Rider I think that’s a hat trick.
And several decades later, Larry Hama of G.I. Joe and Wolverine fame makes his return to Iron Fist with Iron Fist: Heart of the Dragon #1. Last time Hama worked on the character, it was an artist, way back in the early 1970s, in the pages of Marvel Premiere. This time around, he’s the writer, working with artists Dave Wachter and Neeraj Meenon, and it’s a team that really works well together. Fans of Hama’s previous work can expect a lot of action and crazy-fun ideas, like zombie ninjas and a battle with Taskmaster on the tops of poles over a pit of snakes. You’ve got the whole Iron Fist family appearing here, including his young apprentice Pei, the crazy old man Fooh and his partner Luke Cage, plus appearances by the Deadly Hands. It’s a great first issue, issue and a great debut for what looks like should be a really fun series.
Haha #1 is by W. Maxwell Prince and Vanesa Del Ray; it’s the first issue in a new anthology series that’ll be written by Prince but drawn by different artist each issue. And it’s about clowns. Clowns. Given his work on Ice Cream Man, I wondered if this would fall into the horror genre as well — I mean, c’mon, clowns — and it kind of does, if you consider the ordinary life of a down-and-out clown horror. But it’s not a straight-up horror comic, and there’s nothing really supernatural happening in it (although there’s one thing that happens near the end that is a bit unnatural/unrealistic, but it isn’t overtly played as such). The clown lives on the fringes of society, a gritty place, and Del Ray’s artwork captured that grittiness really well.
It’s definitely an odd book, but it’s well done, and you can’t help but root for Bartelby (he’s the clown) in the end. I hope things turn out ok for him. If you enjoy Ice Cream Man or things like the Twilight Zone or Amazing Stories or, you know, clowns, you’ll probably enjoy this.