Comics I’m reading (and why)

The past week, I’ve been stopping in a few of Tacoma’s comics shops trying to find my new comics “home” (so far, the two I like best, Destiny City Comics and Stargazer Comics, have different qualities to recommend them, and I might wind up shopping at both), but the other day, I dropped into Stargazer Comics and struck up a conversation with the dude behind the counter about how much we both love Mark Russell‘s new Flintstones comic from DC. And it got me thinking about what I’m collecting these days, and why, so I thought I’d write about it.

20160807_170154Let’s start with Thor, who is the reason I resumed collecting single-issue comics in the first place. (I used to be a die-hard in the early ’90s and still have most of that collection.) When news broke that the original Thor was losing his hammer and a woman would be taking up not only Mjolnir but also the mantle and even the name of Thor, I was intrigued. So I picked up the first issue, and from the beginning, I was hooked. The gender issues at work, in the original eight-issue Thor run and the current The Mighty Thor, are impressive — and necessary — and while they sometimes feel a bit heavy-handed (as they do in, say, Thor #5, where lightweight villain Crusher Creel actually utters the sentence, “Damn feminists are ruining everything!” and Thor, as she knocks the jerk out with a fist to the jaw, thinks internally, “That’s for saying ‘feminist’ like it’s a four-letter word, creep”), they are generally brilliantly handled and tremendously refreshing in the male-dominated realm of superheroes. One of my favorite moments so far is when the old Thor, who now goes by Odinson, acknowledges that this new Thor has wholly earned not just the hammer but also the name and in utter respect, he relinquishes the name to her. Later, another villain refers to her as “She-Thor” or “Lady Thor” and — with a hammer to the face — Thor quickly asserts her right to the name without any modifiers: she is simply and utterly THOR.

I actually own this comic.

So it has gone with the Thor and The Mighty Thor series, and while there have been the occasional hiccups (that Thor interlude with Crusher Creel was one; the “time-out” issues of The Mighty Thor where Loki narrates old stories was another), the series has since delved into some fascinating territory, addressing identity (gender and otherwise), friendship and family relationships, and — most recently and best of all — the concept of strength in the face of terminal illness. It’s been a stunning run so far, and while I seem to always have gravitated toward “alternate Thors” (yes, I did once collect Thunderstrike), I hope this new iteration of Thor sticks around for a good long while. She makes for damn good storytelling.

Shortly after starting on Thor, I started collecting a rash of other new series, including several by Portland writers: Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club 2 (now finished and out in a collected volume), Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s subversively genius Bitch Planet, and the brilliant Prez, by my friend Mark Russell. DC has recently put the latter on hiatus, much to my displeasure (I want the rest of that story!), but fortunately, they’ve handed Mark The Flintstones, a satirical contemporary reboot of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

20160807_170224I got the first issue of that from Mark himself, at a signing at Portland’s Cosmic Monkey; ever the satirist, he signed it, “This is where it all began to suck.” He means the dawn of civilization’s farce — the comic itself is amazing. He pulls exactly the right nostalgia-triggering images and references from the old cartoon while inserting wicked, sharp references to contemporary culture and politics (people doing paleolithic versions of selfies, soldiers suffering PTSD over the eradication of indigenous populations, hipsters sneering at popular art). And the framing device for the whole issue starts out hilarious and ends with the kind of laughter-echoing-into-somber-realization that is only possible in the best satire. I’m eager for what’s to come in this run, but better still, Mark says the long-term plan is to do a bunch of mini-arcs focused on different characters (like a Pebbles-centric storyline, a Barney-centric storyline, and so on), and he’s hinted in online comments that we might even see a visit from the Great Gazoo sometime down the line. I was already a fan of the Flintstones and of Mark Russell, but even setting those aside, gang, I am all in on this one.

Another Portland writer-turned-comics-writer I’ve picked up lately is Chelsea Cain. I first became aware of her novels several years back when I was moving into a Portland apartment building that caters to artists, writers, and musicians and I found her name on a list of former residents. Mostly a novelist, she did already have at least one comics connection in the form of her cameos — alongside fellow writers Monica Drake, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Suzy Vitello, and Diana Jordan — in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club 2 (they are all members of the same writing group, which is a part of the Fight Club sequel’s plot).

20160807_170202But Cain has recently picked up her own comics title, this one a superhero comic: Marvel’s Mockingbird. And it is fascinating! Back in the ’90s, I never did follow the Avengers or S.H.I.E.L.D. comics with the same devotion as I did the X-Men universe, so I’m playing catch-up on Barbara “Bobbi” Morse, but Cain has rebooted the character so well that I feel I don’t need much backstory — what gaps exist or references I need, Cain helpfully drops into the storyline with expert deftness. And backstory really works better with linear narrative, which this story is NOT. In fact, in a couple of excellent fourth-wall breaks in the title pages or frame narratives, Mockingbird (and sometimes even Cain herself) explains that the opening issues are part of an elaborate “puzzlebox” narrative, slipping in and out of episodes to drop clues about an underlying throughline narrative that will all get tied together somewhere down the road. I recently finished issue #5 and the drawstrings are only just beginning to pull tight. In the meantime, Cain treats us to an exquisite levity and freshness in superhero comics, with a lot of clever in-jokes, sight gags, and allusions, as well as some spot-on gender commentary, peppered into the story or the backgrounds. In an early issue, we see Howard the Duck (of all characters!) hanging out in a S.H.I.E.L.D. clinic waiting room, and the duck makes a more active appearance in the most recent issue; in another issue, Mockingbird rescues a male colleague and plays delightfully fast with all sorts of wry innuendo about his skimpy swimsuit as she fights her way through baddies to save the guy; in the most recent issue, we catch a glimpse of the Hulk sitting on a toilet, his shredded shorts around his ankles, which I’m sure is just a grabbed opportunity but then, I thought the same thing about Howard the Duck in the waiting room, and that cameo paid off later, so who knows. (I hope the Hulk isn’t suffering any digestive problems!)

But for all the fun Cain is having with these characters, the underlying narrative is as serious and human as you can get, and the quieter moments of the storyline are beautifully handled. I mostly picked up this series out of loyalty to the Portland writing scene and my friends who are in Cain’s writing group, but I have become a fast convert: this is a terrific series, and I’m eager to see where it goes.

20160807_170159I also picked up the new Black Panther series mostly out of loyalty to the author and curiosity about the new direction. To be honest, I haven’t read much by Ta-Nehisi Coates except a handful of short pieces here and there, but I did catch an interview with him on the radio shortly before the release of the new Black Panther, and I loved the things he was saying about comics, culture, literature, American society, responsibility, fear, identity . . . so I resolved then and there to pick up the first issue and see what happened.

The first issue was slow, vague, a bit too broad-stroke. But it had vision and hinted at direction, so I stuck with it. The third issue was, no kidding, one of the best and most inventive, more human stories I’ve ever seen in a mainstream superhero comic, up there with the best of the Logan (not Wolverine) stories, up there with best Batman stories, and in many ways up there in its own category of comics narratives. The fourth issue is carrying that forward, and the series is doing some astounding things with issues of authority, heredity, gender, religion, and politics. It’s one of the most adult, more literary comics I’ve seen, and the fact that it’s a mainstream Marvel superhero comic is amazing.

Best of all, I recently read the announcement that Marvel is going to be branching out from Black Panther and running an offshoot series on Wakandan history and culture, and who has Coates tapped to write that series? The one and only Roxane Gay, who not only is a literary badass and the PERFECT person to pen this new series (which will focus on new characters Ayo and Aneka, lovers and rebellious ex-members of Wakanda’s all-female security force, the Dora Milaje — and they are my favorite people in this new run of Black Panther), Gay also is the first (the first!?!?) black woman to head up a major comic title. And that’s huge news, and I am definitely keen to see that first issue when it hits shelves.

No author has ever struck a better superhero pose. (Photograph: Jennifer Silverberg for the Guardian)

Speaking of women in comics: I am surprised to find myself a new devotee of Spider-Gwen. I can’t remember why I first picked up the series — I think I’d read an article about Marvel’s monkeying around with reboots, alternate worlds, and variations within the Spiderverse — but wherever I heard about it, I found the first issue of Spider-Gwen last year and decided to give it a whirl. And it was uneven at first, though I did appreciate that the writer (Jason Latour — seriously, we need more women writing women in comics!) just jumped into the story without too much explanation and quickly built an alternate universe with a history and language all its own. But there were a few false starts, some loose ends from previous series and other alternate Spiderverses to tie off, and a couple of awkward, throw-away issues. But for some reason, the character of Gwen has remained appealing to me — she is every bit the same kind of Spider-hero that I loved in the old Peter Parker stories: the teen angst, the hero anxiety, and the trepidation, all matched weirdly and beautifully with the innate duty of heroism and the delightful cockiness of youth. If Peter Parker had never existed and this was the only Spider-hero the world had ever known, I’d still love Gwen Stacy the same way, and for the same reasons, as I loved Peter Parker.

20160807_171624Yet Latour is smart to play with all sorts of clever references to and twists on the existing Spider-narrative, so at every turn, we keep getting familiar touchpoints that are just offset enough to make us curious what will happen next. The death of Peter Parker instead of Gwen Stacy, the recurring neighborly advice from Ben Parker, the adversary of an unhinged and vengeful but still-badged cop Frank Castle, a vapid and fame-obsessed Mary Jane (oh, MJ, what have they done to you?), and, most recently, the appearance of Kraven the Hunter . . . . It all feels so strange and yet so right. Even in its off moments, I’m loving the overarching story, and Gwen Stacy is a more fascinating character than I would ever have guessed. I don’t know where Marvel plans to go with her, but for the time being, I’m glad she’s here, and I’ll keep reading her.

And finally, I need to talk about Paper Girls.

Yes, it’s written by another guy, Brian K. Vaughan. And while yes, Vaughan did some brilliant work with gender issues and feminism in his seminal Y: The Last Man (still among my all-time favorite series), he’s still a guy, and I still wonder why we aren’t paying women to tell these stories. (And I say that as a man whose own first novel focuses on two women and the struggles they face. I’m proud of my book; I still want to read those same stories told by women.)

20160807_170149But setting aside Vaughan’s gender, Paper Girls is a tremendous story. Maybe I say that because Cliff Chiang’s artwork and Matt Wilson’s colors are so stark and emotionally evocative. Or maybe I say that because the story — a time-travel adventure that begins in the mid-80s with girls who are the same age I was then, which means their adult selves in the 2016-set narrative threads are the same age I am now — appeals to my love of nostalgia. Or maybe it’s just because Vaughan is a genius for narrative arcs, character development, end-of-issue cliffhangers, deep-seated emotions, innuendo . . . .

Folks, I’m not exaggerating when I say that this might be one of the best comics series ever written.

I might be wrong about that. Who knows where this weird and convoluted emotional trip down memory lane into the ’80s is actually headed; who knows if Vaughan will actually be able to satisfactorily tie up all the threads he’s spun off into the wings of this story. But more than any comic book I’ve read in single-issue series, in the ’90s or now in the 20-teens, this is the story that sends me racing to the comic shop each month, asking, “Is it out yet? Is the new issue here?” And I’m convinced it will also reward rereading, once the run is finished and I can go back through every issue in a binge, piecing together the clues and the characters all at once.

It’s the kind of comic I wish I had written, and it’s the kind of comic I don’t think I could ever write. It is a stunning piece of work, and I love it to bits.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

One thought on “Comics I’m reading (and why)

  1. I’m glad you’re taking the world of graphic story-telling seriously. Someone has to, other than obsessives in hoodies, and I sure as hell don’t have enough time. I look forward to hearing more about them. I am particularly interested in whether they use boring, old narrative structures, or whether they strike out into new territory in the way they tell stories. Do the tales all have ‘a beginning, a middle, and an end’ (yawn!)?

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