What Are You Reading? | Sometimes what is lost can still be found

The Smash Pages crew shares what they’ve been reading lately, including ‘Amazing Fantasy,’ ‘Star Trek: Year Five,’ ‘The Legend of Auntie Po,’ ‘Bloom County’ and more.

Welcome to What Are You Reading?, our (cough, cough) weekly (cough, cough) look at what the Smash Pages crew has been checking off their “to read” list lately. Ok, so it’s been a little more than just a week since we last shared what we’ve been reading, but we’re back now, locked and loaded with all kinds of comic reviews just for you.

Let us know what you’ve been reading lately in the comments or on social media.

Corey Blake

About five years ago, Berkeley Breathed brought his Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip Bloom County back and its most recent story arc has been masterfully handled. The original Bloom County was one of the most celebrated newspaper strips of the ’80s, and its return on Facebook and Instagram has let Breathed create at his own schedule without the constraints of a syndicate or newspaper editors. Whenever a new comic is posted, it’s a delight.

This past June, as mask requirements were starting to lessen, the cast of Bloom County started to return to maskless life again. And that’s when we discovered that the orange-tailed cat who’d been nearly covered in scrubs wasn’t Bloom County’s famous Bill the Cat, but instead Hobbes, co-star of that other celebrated newspaper strip of the ’80s, Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. There have been stories of the two cartoonists becoming friends and the legendarily private Watterson possibly secretly contributing to some of the new Bloom County strips in 2016 and 2017.

Over the last two months, the cast of Bloom County led by Opus has been searching for Calvin to reunite the legendary duo. The strips have been a fascinating balancing act of honoring the voice and reality of both strips, as well as mining the good will and nostalgia for Calvin and Hobbes without cheapening any of the characters. The ending was beautiful in honoring Watterson’s amazing creations. Funny, wistful and unpredictable, the strip was the perfect companion, comforting readers through North America’s second COVID summer.

Carla Hoffman

Look, I don’t make the rules here: if you see a giant winged lion leaping forward toward a horrible orc monster, but it’s Captain America riding that giant winged lion and there’s a barbarian woman in distress and the whole thing is painted like an old pulp novel, then I MUST, BY LAW, READ THIS BOOK.

Amazing Fantasy (2021) #1 wasn’t well promoted to me, despite being a prime target for the book’s premise: Marvel heroes, from early in their career, have been magically transported to a land of sword and sorcery where they must battle hordes of monsters to learn what mysterious purpose brought them here. Weird? Yes. Does it have anything to do with Marvel continuity or will it effect changes on our heroes and the future to come? Gosh no. Will it be a heck of a romp through fantasy scenarios in glorious detail! Oh yes, very much indeed. Because the architect of this whole thing is Kaare Andrews, a fantastically graphic artist and storyteller who has done miniseries for Marvel before, some great (Iron Fist: the Living Weapon) and… kind of infamous (Spider-Man: Reign). No matter what you think of his work, there is no denying that he is a master of design; not just a fantastic artist, but great at laying out panels, inks and color to tell a very vivid story without the words involved. Each page has a flow that is easy to follow and detail is used sparingly to convey meaning and emotion for each character’s narration and personality. You can tell pages where Captain America is the focus from Black Widow’s and Spider-Man’s, etc.

The one place that I found my eyes skipping was the words. Now, this is being written with a very distinct style: very purple of prose and style. If you’re not a fan of reading Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and their ilk, some of the inner narration can really lay it on thick. But that’s the beauty of Andrews! His art speaks for itself and when that art shows a winged lion being carried away by a small dragon into the sky in its claws, then that says enough for me.

Brigid Alverson

It seems that every year I read a book and think “This is the book of the year!” Last year it was Snapdragon, by Kat Leyh, and this year it’s The Legend of Auntie Po, by Shing Yin Khor.

The book is set in a logging camp in the late 19th century. There Mei helps her father in the kitchen, turning out meals for the white lumberjacks (whose room and board are included with employment) and the Chinese workers (who don’t have those perks). Despite the unequal treatment and the rugged surroundings, Mei and her best friend Bee share a close friendship (with just a flicker of romantic attraction on Mei’s part), and in the evenings Mei entertains the young people of the camp with her tales of Auntie Po, a mythical lumberjack who shares some characteristics (enormous size and strength, and a giant blue ox) with Paul Bunyan. For a time, Mei actually sees Auntie Po and her ox. The characters are strong and well defined, and Khor incorporates the historical prejudice against Chinese Americans into the story in a very natural way.

Khor, ties this all together with some really solid cartooning, playing with panels and negative space, and sometimes adding a decorative touch that’s also part of the story: At the top of the page, we see tiny silhouettes of a character, say, running and slowing down as she approaches her house. The story is straightforward enough for middle-graders to enjoy but sophisticated enough to intrigue older readers as well.

My other two graphic novels are both one-shot manga that I discussed during Deb Aoki’s Not-at-Comic-Con Best and Worst Manga Panel.

I chose I Don’t Know How to Give Birth!, by Ayami Kayama, as my “worst manga,” but I had only read part of it when I filled out Deb’s spreadsheet. Since I had previously dropped the book like a hot poker every time I picked it up, I figured it would be a shoo-in for worst of the year. But being an ethical reviewer, I was duty-bound to read it. And that’s when I realized, to my horror, that it was actually pretty good.

Sure, the title is grating. No one knows how to give birth; you just do it. The spiral eyes are a dead giveaway that this girl is a DITZ, and she has an arrow sticking out of her head – why? But once I got past the opening, in which a visit to the doctor sends her spinning off into a frenzy of panic and self-blame, I realized it was actually pretty good. As the book goes on, Kayama talks about some really awkward subjects, things many women are too shy to discuss, and offers reassurances. OK, it’s irritating that the overall message of the book is, to paraphrase, “I’m so bad at this that if I can do it, you can too!!” But when you think about it, there’s something to that. When it comes to pregnancy and childbirth, all first-time parents are rank amateurs. As a little bonus, I was surprised how much I liked Ayama’s husband, who is also a manga-ka. He was pretty laid-back, in contrast to her near-constant hysteria, and supportive, if a bit perplexed at times.

My choice for the best new adult manga is a tougher read but a very satisfying. My Broken Mariko, by Waka Hirako, is the story of a woman’s reaction to her best friend’s suicide. Both are 26, they have been best friends since they were in school, but Mariko was horribly abused as a child, physically and psychologically. We see her story unfold in bits and pieces as Tomoyo, the surviving friend, steals her ashes and takes them to a beach to scatter them. Tomoyo is a mess – crying, chain-smoking, just sort of charging forward without having a plan, so things go badly. In the end, she makes an uneasy peace with Mariko’s death and realizes that the best way to honor her is to keep her memory and keep on living. The art is expressive and the characters unforgettable, and while the elements of the story are sad, Tomoyo’s anger and determination keep it moving and keep the reader engaged.

Tom Bondurant

I always feel a little sheepish talking about Star Trek comics in this space, because a lot of their appeal (at least to me) comes from the source material. Indeed, this appreciation of Star Trek: Year Five #23 – written by Jackson Lanzing & Collin Kelly, pencilled by Stephen Thompson, inked by Elisabetta D’Amico, and colored by Charlie Kirchoff – involves a lot of fan affection.

However, the fact of the matter is that right now, comics are the best medium for telling this particular story. In its final arc, the Enterprise has returned to Earth, and its officers must face their own particular futures. We know what they are, because we have seen Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Meanwhile, though, the Tholians have teamed up with Gary Seven (in full “I must kill Baby Hitler mode”) to cripple the Federation. Since our heroes have basically adopted a young Tholian and gotten him into Starfleet Academy, their plan is to use him as a goodwill ambassador. First, though, they have to break through a planet-freezing energy web and then go hell-for-leather through the heart of the Tholian fleet. They have no chance of succeeding unless everyone performs perfectly.

Naturally, this is where comics’ “unlimited budget” comes in. While STY5 has to be technically accurate with respect to all of Trek minutiae, it also has to justify its existence by giving readers an adventure worthy of the five-year mission’s finale. This is spelled out expressly on the page, as Gary Seven explains his plan. He intends to stop the galaxy from going through all the turmoil of the next thousand years by placing planets basically in stasis – a scheme Spock derides as a grand exercise in “nostalgia.”

That’s frightfully on the nose for a gap-filling Star Trek comic, but it also speaks to the Original Series’ less-than-revered place within current Trek fandom. STY5 makes it clear that the Enterprise, so advanced and forward-looking 25 years ago at its launch, has become practically obsolete. (The very first panel of issue #23 shows us the movie-style Reliant next to the TV-style Enterprise.) I don’t know the demographics, but I daresay that there are significantly more Trekkies who grew up with the 24th Century of Jean-Luc Picard, Ben Sisko and Kathryn Janeway than there are olds like me who first met Kirk & Krew. Accordingly, for many present-day fans, TOS probably needs some rehabilitation. References to obsolescence and nostalgia, along with literally challenging Kirk’s place in the grand scheme of things, are therefore working on multiple levels.

Regardless, for us olds there are Easter eggs and callbacks on practically every page – not just to old TOS episodes, but to the other series, from Enterprise‘s past to Discovery‘s future. I just now spotted a bit of narration foreshadowing Kirk’s speech to Picard in Star Trek Generations. This may be the best Star Trek comic since the last Kelvinverse ongoing series, and it’s better than that one too.

Moreover, it’s a pretty good comic. I know full well that the Enterprise and crew are going to be fine, but boy does this creative team do a good job selling the peril, month in and month out. The art is spot-on, lovingly capturing technology and likenesses, but not relying excessively on photoreference. Naturally, the writing has been very nimble, using particular arcs to advance the characters’ journeys with various degrees of subtlety. Again, if you know where they end up, you can see by and large how they get there. Clearly this series works best for us lifers, but I think it holds up on its own merits. I’m eager to re-read the whole thing.

Switching gears completely, the Justice League of America Bronze Age Omnibus Volume 2 just came out, but I didn’t get it because I have all of the individual issues. These include the issues of other series which tied into the Atom’s search for his missing fianceé. However, I was surprised to see that it included April-May 1977’s DC Special #27, subtitled “Danger – Dinosaurs At Large!” I had never read this comic, despite having seen house ads for it in DC’s other series. I therefore had no idea how it might have tied into Justice League of America. Fortunately, my LCS’s voluminous back-issue boxes had a copy, and now I know.

The short answer is, I think this one-off story is in the book because it features Captain Comet interacting with the Justice League during his brief stint investigating the Secret Society of Super-Villains. Actually, Hawkman makes him an honorary member in this story, which may explain its inclusion. The story – written by Bob Rozakis, pencilled by Rich Buckler, inked by Joe Rubenstein, and colored by Jerry Serpe – is an odd little offering involving a time-traveling meteor which pulls Tommy Tomorrow’s spaceship from the year 2056 into the prehistoric past, and transports a handful of dinos from there into the present day. The other Leaguers show up for one page, wrangling various thunder lizards into submission while Captain Comet has to deal with time-traveling supervillain Chronos.

Chronos wants the meteor, but in the distant past it’s already transformed a therapod into the monologuing Tyrano Rex, who now worships it (not unreasonably) as his god. Anyway, Tommy and crew snag the meteor and head back to the future, where they help Captain Comet stop Chronos and round up the rest of the wayward dinosaurs. If you can accept that a plot-convenience meteor can give a velociraptor advanced intelligence, the power of speech, the concept of religion, and a blue unitard with a plunging neckline, you’ll have no problem with this story. Buckler and Rubenstein were probably the height of DC’s house style, so it was a middle-of-the-road inventory issue.

In fact, Bob Rozakis’ text page at the end of the issue lays out how he came to write it. Essentially Paul Levitz (then just the story editor) “volunteered” him to write 34 pages about dinosaurs, with “a super-hero or two who aren’t being used too much.” Rozakis was also writing Secret Society of Super-Villains, which featured Captain Comet, so that part was easy. A trip to the local library – pre-Internet, kids! – then yielded 70-odd pages worth of dino reference, and Rozakis was ready to start scripting. (Buckler apparently got involved later.)

I know I started out by talking about a 55-year-old TV show and then segued into a 44-year-old basically-forgotten comic, but there is a certain appeal to the idea that one of the major comics publishers could just start with “34 pages on dinosaurs” and go from there. I guess the DC Implosion put a big damper on those kinds of impulses. As it happens, this issue is on DCU Infinite and comiXology, so you can judge for yourself.

JK Parkin

Wonder Woman’s adventures through the various realms of the gods continued this week with a trip to Elfhame, the legendary land of the faeries, in Wonder Woman #776. And who better to help chronicle this fun little side trip than artist Jill Thompson of Sandman, Black Orchid and Beasts of Burden fame? Her artwork has a magical quality all its own, which fit well with the issue’s setting:

Becky Cloonan and Michael Conrad have taken Wonder Woman across several different realms as she’s tried to make her way home, and it’s kind of a bummer that she actually makes her way back to Earth at the end of this issue; I’d like to see some of their interpretations of more godly realms.

Speaking of the gods, Wonder Woman wasn’t the only character to end her quest last week — Beta Ray Bill #5 wrapped up Daniel Warren Johnson’s epic, heart-filled quest for the titular character’s chance to again be human — or humanoid, anyway.

With his hammer destroyed by Thor, Bill and his space ship-turned-robot Skuttlebutt set off to find a new weapon that would allow him to turn from a horse-faced hero to his humanoid self again, and along the way they picked up both Pip the Troll and Skurge the Executioner. This final issue not only brings Bill’s story to a close, but also provides some epic, heroic moments for the rest of his crew.

Bill does get punched a lot by Surtur:

but somehow talks the dreaded Asgardian demon into fighting him on more equal terms:

which is not only a clever maneuver on Bill’s part, but also serves as a means for Johnson to provide a monumentally epic battle between the two. (I’m pretty sure at one point Surtur gives Bill Kenny Omega’s V-Trigger move).

It’s a very satisfying conclusion to what’s been not only a visual treat of a miniseries, but a deep dive into the character and what he stands for.

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