Happy Valentine’s Day and welcome to What Are You Reading?, our weekly look at the comics the Smash Pages crew has been falling in love with lately.
Let us know what you read this week in the comments or on social media.
There’s something about the way a Southerner tells a story. It’s a bit like a river, a bit rough at first, and maybe it’s still rough a bit later, but it starts a little slow and you just kinda meander around it’s tributaries for a while until you join back up with the main line again. But those tributaries, those are important to the story. Without them you don’t get the feel of the place, you don’t feel the current, the temperature, you don’t really understand the importance of the main story without those branches.
When you eventually join back up with the line, it gets faster and faster. You hit those rough patches again and next thing you know, you’re through and out the other side, you look back and you can’t really see or get the right perspective on exactly what you went through or the reason for it, but you know it was important, you know deep down that you needed to hear that story. There was a moral to it somewhere.
Well, that’s what reading That Texas Blood by Chris Condon and Jacob Phillips is like. I picked this up on JK Parkin’s recommendation right here in What Are You Reading? He was right in recommending it. By the time you’re done with this story you know you’ve been on a trip, you’re exhausted by the weight of it, but you don’t really know the reason of it, the moral behind the tale, until you sit with it a spell.
This kind of story you have to ponder on it a while and even then, it just kinda haunts the back of your mind till you eventually figure the thing out. It’s in the same vein as Criminal or any Brubaker/Sean Phillips joint, but it’s not exactly that, it’s different. This story is it’s own thing, it couldn’t be told anywhere else than where is set.
It’s of the South, meaning it’s got a presence here. It’s a character in the story as much as any other. It reads like No Country for Old Men met Justified or Hap and Leonard, and went at it in the Texas sun for a bit and spat out this little slice of life tale full of sadness, regret and death. It’s worth reading, but take it slow, absorb the details; it’s better that way.
With a new Champions creative team coming up, I thought I would take a moment to look back at the 2016 launch of that series, as collected in Champions Vol. 1: Change the World by writer Mark Waid and artist Huberto Ramos with Victor Olazaba, Edgar Delgado and Clayton Cowles providing inks, color art and lettering respectively. This was a repurposing of the Champions name, which was first used by Marvel in the late 1970s for an odd hodgepodge of heroes. This new team has more in common with the New Warriors and other teams of teen heroes who band together to fight crime better than their adult counterparts. The art by Ramos and Olazaba, which looks like graffiti art come to life in comics form, works great here. It’s animated with a punk attitude, youthful and determined. There’s an activist bent to the team’s mission statement, and the art carries that well. These first five issues are mostly about getting the team together and letting them get to know each other. In fact, the second issue has no big villain at all – the kids go on a camping trip to learn about their powers and bond. Putting characterization up front pays off for the action later. I love characters discovering their powers and each other, and figuring things out as they go while thinking they have the answers. This is the kind of comic that just checks all my boxes.
Going back further, I finally read Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters by writer/artist Mike Grell, color artist Julia Lacquement and letterer Ken Bruzenak. I’ve been meaning to read this forever. This was the 1987 relaunch of DC’s green archer following the universe re-set of Crisis on Infinite Earths. The prestige format 3-issue mini-series was a shift toward a more realistic and grounded version of the character. Gone were the silly trick arrows and feather sticking out of his hat. This version is older and ready to settle down to raise a family. He’s moved to Seattle with his live-in girlfriend Black Canary to open up a florist shop. This is a really focused and concise 3-act story with some really eye-catching art. A watercolor style really gives this a unique look. Grell’s page layouts can be challenging but his draftsmanship is rock solid. Perhaps most unique is the dialogue. Somewhat minimalist, it’s also impressively restrained and controlled. Superhero comics tend toward big emotions to go with the big action, but this takes a more subtle approach. The conversation between Green Arrow and Black Canary as they navigate a conversation on whether to have children was a standout. Striving for maturity in superhero comics often results in some combination of nudity, swearing and extreme violence or all three. There are scenes here that show actual maturity in depicting characters in conflict. But not everything here has aged quite as well since its ’80s release. Black Canary is unceremoniously made powerless (there’s no mention of her sonic scream in the story, as if she never had it) and she joins a long history of female characters badly brutalized for the sake of the male character’s arc. And the new character Shado seems a little too reliant on the dragon lady stereotype.
And for something more recent, I read Hypnotwist/Scarlet by Starlight by Gilbert Hernandez. This is a peculiar release by the Love and Rockets creator. This is an old school flip book, meaning no matter which cover you are looking at, whether it’s the Hypnotwist cover or the Scarlet by Starlight cover, there’s no back cover. The two stories are unrelated other than they feature Fritz Martinez, who in Love and Rockets is a B-movie actress. So the assumption is these are two of her movies, which gives Hernandez the freedom to go a little crazy with b-movie shlock and experimentalism. Both originally appeared in Love and Rockets: New Stories and appear here in an expanded form. The Hypnotwist is silent (no dialogue) and has a surreal dream-like journey of Fritz wandering through various vignettes. This probably passed my threshold for abstract narratives. I like when creators experiment but there is never a moment to get our bearings on what any of this might mean. There’s a David Lynch feel but part of Lynch’s brilliance is the way he shifts from “normal” to “weird.” The “weird” alone left me adrift. Scarlet by Starlight is a science fiction tale that veers into alien bestiality. Still weird, but there’s enough context to grab hold of the journey. Hernandez’s art throughout is wonderful as ever. Touches of Steve Ditko and classic Archie Comics add a whole other layer to these stories, adding a classic sheen to juxtapose the weird.
For Valentine’s Day, I decided to revisit the immortal Detective Comics arc from writer Steve Englehart, penciller Marshall Rogers and inker Terry Austin. Among other things, it gave the world a romance for the ages – or at least the Bronze Age – between Bruce Wayne and Silver St. Cloud. Englehart and artists Walt Simonson and Al Milgrom had introduced Silver in June 1977’s ‘Tec #470, but I skipped that one because it only gives her a couple of glorified cameos. Instead, I read issues #471-76 (August 1977 to September-October 1978), where her involvement in the stories gets progressively more important.
Specifically, while #472 deals with Hugo Strange impersonating Bruce Wayne, it’s Silver who smells a disguised rat and – not knowing who else to alert – calls Dick Grayson. Dick then gets to see how close Bruce and Silver have gotten when they visit her in the hospital in #473. In #474, we learn that Silver organizes big business expos, and can even rustle up a fully functional, Hall H-sized giant electric typewriter. Great Dick Sprang’s ghost, she must be The One! It’s at that very venue where Batman and Deadshot’s latest fight ends – and as the Darknight Detective is making his exit, Silver realizes just who she’s been dating.
Issues #475 and #476 are justly famous for the “Laughing Fish” storyline featuring the Joker, but they also give Silver a memorable sendoff. Issue #475 begins with Batman appearing, Dracula-style, at Silver’s apartment window. The two have an awkwardly-charged staring match (narrated by who-blinks-first thought balloons) before Batman excuses himself and Silver collapses with relief. Silver then decides she needs to get out of town to clear her head, because both of them not only know the secret, but know that the other knows they know. The rest of the issue is filled with instant-classic Joker bits, from his visit to the trademark offices to his chilling encounter with corrupt councilman Rupert Thorne. That convinces Thorne he needs to get out of town too, and the issue ends with Silver and Thorne on a midnight road trip. Yadda yadda yadda, as issue #476 wraps up, Batman and the Joker battle in a thunderstorm on some high-rise girders overlooking Gotham Harbor. Thorne’s ditched Silver, but she’s caught a plane back to Gotham and arrives at the docks just in time to see the end of the fight. Batman leaps for safety as Joker’s girder gets struck by lightning, and the Clown Prince of Crime falls into the water.
With the Joker apparently dead (…sure), Silver breaks up with Bruce by pleading to Batman. She never addresses him by his real name: “I love you – but I couldn’t live with […] never knowing what each night would bring! Never knowing when your luck would run out!”
Batman tries to interject, but she’s not having it. “No! It’s over! I can’t let it go on any longer! We have to stop before we can’t stop – before we can’t help ourselves!” They share a final kiss, she begs him to “stay away,” and a couple panels later, Commissioner Gordon shows up.
I don’t need to reinvent the wheel by praising Englehart/Rogers, but I will say this: they each do their darndest to ground Bruce and Batman in a realistic setting, and thereby make Silver a more believable “civilian.” Rogers and Austin especially fill their panels with meticulous detail, from bustling street scenes to the knobs on a random kitchen radio. Bruce’s girlfriends of the ’40s and ’50s tended to be “the girl,” or at best “the Lois Lane”; and his flirtations with the likes of Catwoman and Talia were informed by fairly standard tropes. Among all those women, Silver stands out as simply a smart, capable, independent person who found herself in Bruce Wayne’s orbit and managed – on her own, mind you – to find her way into his innermost self. The fact that their romance had to end is almost beside the point. The way it ended, with Silver deciding that she couldn’t be involved with Batman and not having that sound like she wasn’t worthy of him, is the ultimate expression of her agency. You can ship Batman with all the femmes fatale you want. I’m on Team Silver.
I don’t think you can be a “casual” fan of X-Men comics; they require a sort of commitment to plots and character developments and melodrama that spreads itself out through so many teams and members and morality alignments that take up that space in your brain where seventh grade math should be. If, say, you pick up a Spider-Man issue, no matter what complicated moment in Peter Parker’s life you find yourself at, there’s a high level chance that you’ll be reading a story about Spider-Man (a good guy) who will be set at odds with villainy. With the X-Men titles, all bets are off; you’re either going to read something banking on eight years of continuity or the immediate retcon of the very same.
All this to say I read Cable #7 this week and found myself charmed and frustrated. The good news is that it launches right back into the title’s starting plotline, recently set aside for the big X-event, X of Swords. It had me hearkening back to the ‘90s, where some grand adventure would take over multiple X-books and everyone would have to scramble to figure out where they were after the Phalanx attacked or they all got back from the Blue Area of the Moon. Cable’s story is slightly tinged with the effects of the Otherworld adventure, but no one has to read X of Swords to follow this solo series. There’s a mutant baby cult on the loose, and Cable and Rachel Summers get to go on a rare brother/sister team-up to continue the investigation. It’s the sort of fun interplay that the Krakoan era has given us; same with both siblings going to talk to their parents after their mission. I never think of Gerry Duggan as a “family writer” but he does a great job on how Cyclops would handle his wayward son in a private moment. Phil Noto’s art is gorgeous in its simplicity and expression; don’t expect huge displays of awesome psychic powers, but do expect to see shifts in emotion from panel to panel that feel like a series of real photographs.
Should you read Cable #7? Yes! Would you want to? He’s an obscure enough character that you’d have some previous knowledge of him to pick up the title, but I do think that if you’re able to let go of that previous knowledge and lean in to the “all these characters are different subtly because Krakoa” logic of it all, a casual reader might actually be able to jump in and enjoy the ride.