What Are You Reading? | ‘Fear Case,’ ‘We Are Robin’ 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 checking off their “to read” list lately. And this week’s list included everything from King in Black tie-ins to Nellie Bly.

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

Tom Bondurant

Since I mentioned We Are Robin as part of the Future State roundtable, I decided to make the most of my DC Universe Infinite subscription and read the thing. So far I’m through the first six issues (August 2015-January 2016) and Robin War #1 (February 2016). It takes place during the New 52’s year-long “DC You” phase, which – take this as you will – basically closed out the New 52 itself. This was the year when Commissioner Gordon took over as Batman, wore a suit of powered armor, and used a big Bat-blimp as his floating headquarters. Elsewhere in the Bat-books, Dick Grayson was a super-spy, Barbara Gordon had relocated to the hipster haven of Burnside and readers got a delightful look inside Gotham Academy. So, you know, experimentation all around.

Anyway, We Are Robin is written by Lee Bermejo, with breakdowns from Rob Haynes and finished art from Jorge Corona. Its point-of-view character starts off as Duke Thomas, familiar to 2015’s Batman readers as a kid who got to know Batman during the “Zero Year” origin story and whose parents were missing following the epic Joker arc “Endgame.” (That arc also left Bruce Wayne bereft of his Batman persona.) Duke is recruited into the We Are Robin movement by a mysterious figure – spoiler, it’s Alfred, but the kids don’t know that yet – and the series expands to include a few other Robins of varying backgrounds and motivations. The series’ first big complication comes when a Robin is killed trying to defuse a bomb, so you can probably tell where things are headed from that. Yes, there’s lots of parental concern and man-on-the-street hot takes about Batman and Robin generally, but Bermejo manages to make it sound familiar without turning it into cliche.

We Are Robin‘s main strength is in its portrayal of these kids as DIY crimefighters. Duke explains that he doesn’t want to jump across rooftops because it’s just easier to run through the streets, while issue #4 (drawn by James Harvey) follows another Robin through one of her average days. She holds her own against a handful of teens looking to attract superheroes for social-media purposes, and gets rewarded with a Batgirl pep talk. (Batgirl also wraps up one of the more mouthy teens in yellow caution tape and a sign that says “I Wasted Batgirl’s Time.”) Corona’s art reinforces this tone – it’s rough-edged and expressionistic in a Joe Staton kind of way, and that keeps the series somewhat light-hearted. At its heart We Are Robin is a teenage adventure story (issue #4 uses a Lord Of The Flies motif), not a serious exploration of vigilante logistics.

However, now that the Robin War crossover has arrived – written by Grayson‘s Tom King, no less – things are starting to get real. A Robin kills a thief and a police officer during a botched convenience-store robbery, and suddenly Batman and the other Robins (including Damian, Tim and Jason) are wondering who these kids are and why the city council has just outlawed any kid with any Robin paraphernalia. I did read Robin War when it came out, so I know where this is headed; but it’s good to have the We Are Robin perspective on things. I will say that as much as I have enjoyed We Are Robin, seeing Damian sass them with extreme prejudice is still pretty funny.

Shane Bailey

This week I read something new and a few things old. The new book I read was a pretty unique offering. I was given the chance to read Project: Starless Daydream written by Frankee White, edited by Danny Lore, and filled with a bevy of great independent artists. The book itself is a narrative zine about the finale to a mech anime that never existed and that’s exactly as cool as it sounds. It’s a little bit disjointed, as the script was structured in prompts for each individual artist. The goal was to have every artist’s pages standalone as well as contribute to the overall story. Knowing that going in and seeing it as these individual moments in time helped to pull everything together so it clicks. It’s a very interesting way to put together a book and I’d love to see more comic “jam” sessions like this in the future. There’s a rawness to it that’s intriguing.

As for the old I dug into a couple of collections on comiXology. John Byrne is a problematic person due to his outspokenness and his awful views, but damn it I still love his 80s work especially his Fantastic Four run. With that in mind I ventured into volumes 1-4 of Fantastic Four Visionaries: John Byrne and I have to say I still really love this stuff. Yes it’s dated and yes there’s some problematic moments if you look back at it with our 2020 eyes, but there’s a lot of good stuff too. I really enjoyed the Terrax storyline, Frankie Raye becoming Nova herald of Galactus, the re-introduction of adult Franklin, Doom’s several appearances. It has the energy of early FF stories were exciting events happen every issue without really any pause to catch your breath. I just wish so many talented people didn’t have to be a-holes in real life.

The second book I revisited was Age of X, not Age of X-Man, and wow I forgot how exciting this X-Men event was. It kind of throws you into the deep-end without a paddle, but it’s a ton of fun figuring out what’s what. The X-Men are truly thrown into a world where the entire human race hates and fears them and they are driven back into one last castle made of around 20 buildings commandeered from New York by Magneto. Some characters are similar like Cannonball being a strong leader, but some like Basilisk, the character we know as Cyclops are changed by this new world into something completely new. All the familiar characters have new motivations and dark pasts due to the change. The re-designs of all the mutants by Clay Mann are superb, and Mike Carey slow reveals the reason behind this new world expertly. If you can pick this up, I highly recommend doing so. You won’t be disappointed. 

Brigid Alverson

You can tell what I’m working on by the books I’m writing about in these posts. Right now I’m researching an article on graphic biographies, and I have plenty of material to work with! First up is The Incredible Nellie Bly, by Luciana Cimino and Sergio Algozzino, which will be out in March from Abrams. Lord knows there are plenty of books already about Nellie Bly, but this one is a nice intro to the subject, told in part as she recounts her glory days to an aspiring female journalist in 1921. Like the best graphic bios, it focuses on one part of her life, in this case her 20s and 30s, when she did most of her journalism. The introduction by David Randall gives a brief account of her entire life story, something that’s often missing from books like this. It’s an engrossing read, with art that’s easy to follow and evokes the period beautifully, and the dialogue between Bly and the young journalism student helps provide context.

More ambitious, and equally satisfying, is Why She Wrote, by Lauren Burke, Hannah K. Chapman and artist Kaley Bales, which will be published by Chronicle in April. This book grew out of the writers’ podcast, Bonnets at Dawn, which was sort of a “who would win this fight” but with Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen in opposite corners; it later expanded to include other women writers. They group the writers in threes, each triad focusing on an issue such as pseudonyms or intellectual property rights, then gives a brief bio of each writer followed by a comic that depicts one moment or motif in her life. So basically it’s “You’ve heard of this writer, right? Did you know she’s really badass? Here, let me show you!” And then we see Mary Wollstonecraft going to France to report on the Revolution first-hand, Elizabeth Gaskell reacting badly to bad reviews, and Beatrix Potter complaining about people stealing her IP – and then doing something about it. And Charlotte Bronte, truly a force of nature, not only gets her own chapter but barges into both her sisters’. While the focus is on European writers, the authors change it up a bit with some Americans, including several women of color. This is the best sort of biography, in that it makes you want to learn more about the subjects and read their work, and the authors provide plenty of information on how to do just that.

Carla Hoffman

I read Avengers Mech Strike #1 because I could. It was there. It has Avengers, it has giant robots for the Avengers to pilot, this is old school toyetics at work. For the most part, it’s a pretty solid story: monster that feeds on energy and matter does a Godzilla over New York City (aka “Thursday”) and the Avengers fight it, learn some of its secrets and Tony builds them all “biomechanoid response units” to face the the next issue’s monster. The dialogue and plotting make it feel very close to the cinematic universe without pulling from that continuity, leaving it outside current comics and also timeless for those who just saw big robots on the cover. They took the time to actually flesh out the whys and wheres of their big robot story, but not so much you really need issue #1 for issue #2. I didn’t come here for the King in Black tie-in, you know? The art is a little awkward, in that it rides the line between using movie references for characters and more established comic design without really connecting with either, leaving you in this uncanny valley. I think the coloring was a little dark at times, leaving some shots of the monster the Avengers were fighting muddy and less threatening than it would have been, some of the inking was really thin on faces leaving you with the feeling that you were reading about the heroes’ stunt doubles, but nothing that was a deal breaker for the story you signed up for. Alex Ross will not be doing interiors for Avengers Mech Strike, but please enjoy the ride anyway.

I read Immortal Hulk #43; yeah, THAT issue. Setting aside what most are already aware of, it’s surprisingly a good intro to Ewing’s current status on the book: normally large and grey, a Banner-sized Joe Fixit gives you a rundown of what the Hulk’s status is currently, who’s coming after him and how Fixit survives on his own. If you missed some issues on this run, or forgot the general idea of what was going on, it’s a nice catch-up point. Not sure how much a new reader would get out of it, what with the U-Foes training or a side story about Doc Samson/Sasquatch, but there’s a coherent through line to give you a good feel of how this arc is shaping up.

Yeah, and then there’s the art. With context, I think the antisemitic background details of the now infamous panel gets worse; there’s a lot of background details in the first few pages that have in-jokes on them: a Starbucks sign replaced by “Starlin’s,” Joe Fixit’s “616” trucker hat and a Tie Fighter on a shelf in a pawn shop. These all seem like purposeful details that follow through from page to page. The jewelry store is a plot point and not some random generic store Fixit’s walking by. It just leaves a sour taste in your mouth once you see it, and that panel is on page three. I can’t in good conscience recommend this issue to new readers.

Last but not least, I read King in Black: Black Knight #1 and let me tell you: if you don’t know who the Black Knight is, this issue will give you everything you need to know to understand the Ebony Blade, Dane Whitman and what might possibly be forthcoming to MCU projects in the future. Si Spurrier is one of my favorite writers since X-Men Legacy, a comic run that I am positive led to the fantastic FX show, Legion, so trust me when I say he can bring forth the heart of complex characters through their most complicated histories. If you are already reading King in Black, it puts together some ideas from other tie-ins (Symbiote Spider-Man is clearly denoted in a little yellow editor’s note box!) as the Ebony Blade will be part of defeating Knull. If you have never read a Black knight story before, there are some beautiful splash pages of context and important history to give you the basics. Jesús Sais is fantastic at mixing shot composition and grand theatrics with story beats and expressions to deliver the heart of the story. If you didn’t read Aero or Sword Master (like me), they make cameos here as more modern heroes to the archaic-seeming Whitman. All in all, this is a $4.99 one shot that accomplishes a lot and is worth every penny. Super excited to see what’s to come from Black Knight: Curse of the Ebony Blade series, due out in March of this year.

JK Parkin

Fear Case by Matt Kindt, Tyler Jenkins and Hilary Jenkins has an intriguing premise that carries through the first issue in a lot of interesting ways. The basic idea is that there’s this mysterious box that has shown up throughout history at sites of tragedy and disaster — the fear case. The Secret Service has been tracking this thing since World War II, but, um, “conjecture” suggests its been around a lot longer than that, perhaps even as far back as the days of the Aztecs. Agents are only allowed to work on the case for a year, as focusing on it for longer than that has dire and deadly results. Two agents are currently assigned to it, with about three weeks left in their year — and they’re getting close.

This is a very tense, moody comic, with Tyler and Hilary Jenkins leaning into the darkness that surrounds this gruesome mystery in their artwork. The first half of the book relies heavily on black, but the palette shifts quickly and painfully when we get to see the “fear case” in action. They’ve worked with Kindt before, on Black Badge and Grass Kings, and their art style fits so well with the kinds of stories they tell together.

It would be easy to get lost in the plot surrounding the case at the expense of the characters, but Kindt gives you enough of a friendship between them to get invested — invested enough to know that it’s highly likely any contact they have with the case will end badly. I can’t imagine there’s going to be a happy ending here, but I’m intrigued enough to follow along. Plus at this point, I’d really like to know what’s in the case.

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