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 Usagi Yojimbo and Fist of the North Star to newer stuff like Atlantis Wasn’t Built for Tourists and even a balloonless book about Stan Lee you may have heard about.
Let us know what you read this week in the comments or on social media.
Like everyone else in comics-dom, it seems, I just read True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, by Abraham Riesman. Riesman really did the footwork with this bio, talking to numerous people who were related to, friends with, or business associates of Stan Lee. Lee lived a long life and was a great self-promoter—he was one of my childhood icons. The troubles of his later years took some of the shine off that, and Riesman carefully untangles and explains the overlapping business and personal relationships of Lee’s post-Marvel years. Some of the material is familiar from other histories of comics and of Marvel, but Riesman brings in new insights and his writing is top notch. Most important, when it’s impossible to tell what’s true and what isn’t, he lays out the facts and the arguments and then moves on. He doesn’t have an ax to grind.
Switching to something less cerebral, I also read an advance copy of Vol. 1 of Fist of the North Star, a classic manga that Viz will be publishing starting in June. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where there’s not enough food or water, but for some reason motorcycles (but not cars) still exist, and the men who ride them are able to outfit themselves in elaborate metal-studded leather gear. Priorities! There are basically two groups in this world, motorcycle gangs and everyone else, and the gangs prey on the innocent townspeople with greed that is exceeded only by their cruelty. Into this desolate landscape strides Kenshiro, the chief practitioner of the martial art of Hokuto Shinken, to hand out some rough justice. A towering fellow with 80s hair and seven scars on his chest in the shape of the Big Dipper, Ken sympathizes with the most downtrodden and brings evildoers to violent (but satisfying) ends. This manga reads like it was meant to be an anime – there’s a lot of action, and the pacing is good. It’s also ultra-violent, the sort of manga where someone realizes in mid-sentence that his head has just been sliced in half as neatly as a melon. It’s like when Wile E. Coyote runs off the cliff, then looks down and falls, only with real death. Anyway, the fights are pretty epic, with antagonists who are ridiculously large compared to everyone else and equipped with an array of imaginatively nasty weapons. Hokuto Shinken is basically weaponized acupressure: Ken knows the exact locations of all the 708 vital points of the body, so he can kill in a variety of creative ways with just his thumbs, or even without touching his victim. He often builds in a time delay, too, telling the bad guy “You will die in exactly one minute” or “You’re already dead,” then having a brief conversation with him before his head explodes. Nonetheless, as Jason Thompson explains in an excellent 2013 column at ANN, Fist of the North Star is really about friendship, and as the creator Buronsen (whose nom de plume honors legendary tough guy Charles Bronson) put it, “Love and compassion are more powerful than violence!” The violence does tend to dominate in this first volume, but the series evolves, and I’m here for it.
I received a copy of the Atlantis Wasn’t Built for Tourists trade paperback in the mail last week; I bought it because I’d heard good things about it, but I actually didn’t know much about the story before opening it (which is kind of a rare thing these days, especially when you write for a comics blog). I sort of assumed it had something to do with the lost city of Atlantis, but actually the “Atlantis” in the story is a small Northwestern town where the action takes place.
Sometimes it’s fun to go into something with no prior knowledge or expectations, and it’s even more fun when the story really delivers. I was only planning to read the first few pages when I initially picked it up, but I ended up reading about half of it while standing over my open shipping box — and I only stopped because of another commitment. It’s a fun story that starts with a pretty standard trope — the lone stranger wandering into a town that has a whole lot of secrets. From there, though, the story is anything but predictable, as you learn more about the various characters that populate this town. I won’t say much more than that, but there are several clever twists throughout the story, which both wraps up nicely and offers a hint at what might come in a second volume. The comic is by Eric Palicki, Wendell Cavalcanti, Mark Dale and Shawn Lee, and it’s published by Scout Comics.
One of the other items in that same package that I received last week was the first Usagi Yojimbo Origins trade paperback, featuring the early work of Stan Sakai in color for the first time, thanks to the beautiful color work of Ronda Pattison. It’s been a long time since I read some of these stories, which I believe were originally published by Fantagraphics, and others in the collection I don’t remember reading before. Looking at this older material, you can really see how Sakai’s work changed over the years, esp. in regards to Usagi himself. The other interesting thing was seeing Lord Hikiji, the often-talked-about-but-rarely-seen villain, who is also one of the few human characters that appears in the series (the other human character I remember was Ocho, who turned out to be a shapeshifting monster — so I’m not sure if she counts).
Finally, I read Grunt: The Art and Unpublished Comics of James Stokoe. This is a nicely designed art book from Dark Horse featuring pin-ups, covers, as well as completed and uncompleted comics by Orc Stain creator James Stokoe. It features his art from across several publishers, including some of his Marvel work, but the real joy for me was seeing several comics that hadn’t otherwise appeared anywhere. If you’re a fan of Stokoe’s, this is a great book to own.