What Are You Reading? | ‘Robin,’ ‘Seconds,’ ’20 Fists’ 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 — from older stuff like Night Force and Seconds to more recent releases like Robin, Transformers/My Little Pony and more.

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

JK Parkin

I had a pretty terrible week last week, as my second COVID shot brought on the full buffet of side effects over the course of three days. As I was down and out, I read several comics, but looking over the list I may need to go back and re-read them to, um, remind myself as to what actually happened in them. That being said, there’s one that I’ll re-read not because of my hazy fever brain, but because the story was really compelling, 20 Fists #1 by Frankee White, Kat Baumann, Gab Contreras and DC Hopkins, and published by Source Point Press.

This was billed as a “rough and tumble romance” during its Kickstarter campaign last year, and it lives up to that moniker. It’s about two rival crews who are part of something called the 20 Fists Fight League, which is like Fight Club but with five-person teams. And the leaders of these two crews have a complicated romance going on. There’s a lot to like in this first issue, but the two things that really stand out to me are the dialogue, which is sharp and natural, and the character designs. Props to both Baumann and Contreras, who keep the 10 members of the gangs distinct and original both in how they’re drawn and with the color choices. It would be easy to lose track of everyone, especially during the fight scenes, but they all stand out. (It helps that the fight scenes are very well choreographed).

Overall it’s nicely done first issue and sets up a lot of interesting possibilities for the rest of the story. I’m totally cheering for the two leaders.

Tom Bondurant

Although Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel Seconds came out in 2014, I just got around to reading it this week. More accurately, I just got around to finishing it, after starting in 2014 and then pushing it farther down the priority list. Once I committed to the book, it proved to be a compelling read, but I have to say that some of O’Malley’s choices kept me from connecting with it more fully.

It’s not fair to compare Seconds to the Scott Pilgrim series – which ended about four years before this book came out – but at times it seems like Seconds is trying very hard not to be Scott Pilgrim. The character design seems even more stylized; there’s an omniscient narrator who interacts occasionally with Katie, our heroine; and the one SP reference feels very obligatory. Because it’s a story about Katie using magic mushrooms (although not the classic variety) to correct her mistakes by resetting the timeline, O’Malley has to put Katie at a certain distance. However, that’s what makes it a little tough to get into. Although many of Katie’s choices are about fine-tuning the love-of-her-life relationship, she comes across as a bit flighty even as he doesn’t seem that right for her. In a weird way it reminded me of the HBO Max miniseries The Flight Attendant, which also features a flawed heroine who makes poor life choices. While she doesn’t get Katie-style resets, her flashes of memory occasionally reframe various aspects of her life and character. In the end both she and Katie are endearing, but you kind of have to put up with them for a while first.

Ultimately Seconds takes a turn into outright horror, thanks to the ripple effects of Katie’s time-tinkering. This is not to say that Seconds finally gets some much-needed stakes, but it does put the focus back on Katie herself and not (for example) which guy she’s going to end up with or which timeline will win out. Although the moral of the story is anodyne enough that it literally shows up as a piece of motivational wall art, O’Malley did make me emotionally invested in her journey. Now, of course, I want to reread Scott Pilgrim….

… but not yet, because boy howdy did I pick another potboiler out of my “to read” pile! Speaking of follow-ups and horror, Night Force was Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s attempt to give DC some of that Tomb Of Dracula mojo. As it happens, DC already had a vampire feature, the spectacularly-named “I … Vampire!” in House Of Mystery. Running from March 1981’s issue #290 to August 1983’s #319, it predated Night Force; but apparently DC had room for more than one spooky series. Thus, Wolfman and Colan introduced the world to the mysterious Baron Winter via a bonus story in July 1982’s New Teen Titans issue #21. This is the last tangent, I promise; but for what it’s worth, NTT #21’s main story was also the debut of Brother Blood and his very cult-like “church.”

Anyway! I’m up to issue #5 (reading in the 2012 hardcover collection), and so far this series is not about Dracula – not quite – but it is about a secret Pentagon project to a) use devil-worshipers to b) contact Satan himself so that c) the USA can harness a limitless supply of energy and thereby d) defeat the Soviet Union, which is also working on a similar plan. Heading up this endeavor is Dr. Donovan Caine, who is counting on psychic assistance from almost-21-year-old Vanessa Van Helsing. Yes, of those Van Helsings. Apparently, while there was no Bram Stoker-derived Dracula in the Night Force backstory, Vanessa’s grandfather did fight some sort of monstrous evil, and she’s got some paranormal powers. The reader-identification character is Jack Gold, a divorced, hard-living journalist who, for some reason, gets recruited by Baron Winters to help Caine and Van Helsing with the whole evil-energy plan. I have to give it to Wolfman and Colan, because the notion of weaponizing devil-worship is truly bonkers; but they seem determined to run with it. Colan’s work is dependable as always, and he uses color holds effectively for some of the more demonic sequences. (At one point he even makes skull-like faces out of Jack’s cigarette smoke, but I don’t know if that’s supposed to be part of the plot or just a bit of fun.) Meanwhile, Wolfman supplies some of the most florid narration and hard-bitten dialogue of his career. It all makes Night Force a very readable spectacle, or at least a gloriously hot mess.

Carla Hoffman

I read My Little Pony/Transformers: The Magic of Cybertron #1 because, as Frenzy says, “Primus forbid we ever take a break from endless war to appreciate a little beauty or just plain happiness, huh?!” Sometimes a concept just hits you right in the WTF enough for you to look inside and the crazy thing is, this isn’t the first Transformers/My Little Pony crossover? Apparently, the first was called “Friendship in Disguise,” and “The Magic of Cybertron” kind of takes place afterwards, so I missed out on all the “OMG you’re a pony/OMG you’re a transforming robot” shenanigans. Which is fine; if you are willing to accept the reality that is depicted on the cover, that the My Little Pony universe and the Transformers universe can coexist through different dimensions and no one’s really fazed by it all, please read this. Just self-aware enough to assure you of your instinctual absurdity, just enough lore that if you are a fan of either franchise you’ll recognize characters, tropes and theming, and just short enough to let you share it with kids of all ages, think of this as a handful of M&Ms snack before you eat a full meal.

King in Black #5 is where things get out of hand. Like I understand the rock’n’roll mentality of the epic story, the grand scale of fighting light and dark and space and heroism, but it just feels a little too rich for my tastes. Each issue, each legendary threat to our world, the universe, good and evil, it all just stacked up upon each other, one monumental step, one after the other until you’re fighting in space with the King in Black and Eddie Brock returned from the dead with Captain Universe powers and is wielding an axe made of Mjolnir and the Silver Surfer’s board and I just can’t comprehend anything any more. Is this parody? Is this all supposed to be taken with grandeur and not as an exercise in how many action figures we can mash together? Don’t get me wrong, this is always what the King in Black saga was going to be; you put this much on the line for as long as Donny Cates has been scripting this, you were always bound to wind up looking like a sort of Frank Frazetta painting. That’s fine. I’m not saying the resolution to this grand battle wasn’t justified or didn’t make sense within the narrative of the book. King in Black is one incredibly coherent story I can sell to comic readers, confident in how I can find the right person to read this book. I’m just saying that last issue is a LOT and may need sometime to sink in, absorb the spectacle and think back on later to find bigger themes and dramatic points because right now I am too full of all of it to properly digest it well.

In light of how surprised and delighted I was with the new direction of Nightwing, I took a chance and picked up the new Robin #1 to see if I really was becoming a BatBook fan again. I’m glad to find myself in a simple enough concept: Robin in Mortal Kombat. Seriously, he goes off the grid from the rest of the Bat family and goes to a mysterious island for the Kumite; Lazarus Island has a big League of Lazarus that Robin wants to defeat so he can learn why his mother and grandfather kept it from him. You don’t need to know much from the start, and the setting is engaging enough to make me want to see who fights who next. The art throws me off a little bit, as the line thickness seems dark and shadowy on one side of the frame and featherlight near watercolor-ish on the other. I think it’s to depict speed of movement, as legs and impact seem to be where things get blurry, but instead it makes me wonder if the page scanned correctly? It’s not bad, it just the loose linework throws off my sense of what’s tangible and what isn’t; I don’t know if it’s Gleb Melnikov’s signature style that’s the issue or just my terrible eyesight, but I did get used to it by the end of the book to want to know more.

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