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Five Comics You Should Be Reading (September 26, 2001)

posted Feb 12, 2011, 3:18 PM by Russ Smith   [ updated Feb 12, 2011, 3:31 PM ]
A little water trickled past the bridge while I was writing this column, so let me say a few things before I start on the topic I've been swearing I'd talk about.  I'm no longer editing the Big Bang reviews, for the sanity of all involved.  The good news (aside from the aforementioned empty beds in the asylum) is that I should have some time to do some reviews and other fun stuff around here, plus, there's this column, which will continue to be my own personal idea breeding grounds.

Well, I think it's good news.

Anyway, here we go.

Nobody has asked why this column is named Bang On!  Wise, but ineffectual, since I'm going to tell you anyway.  It's a combination of two relevant perspectives: first, the arrogant belief that often what I say is dead right, or bang on, and second, the sneaking suspicion that I write these things by just banging on the keyboard and hoping for the best.


This week, it's the arrogant one.  I could write reviews and submit them (to myself, which is always a perk), but no.  Instead of telling you about issues, I'm going to tell you about titles -- titles which, statistics do suggest, you very likely aren't buying.  But you SHOULD be.

Understand, now, that I am not a paragon of indy cool.  I am a mainstream person.  I often have mainstream tastes, at least in the nerd corner of the universe.  I love Spider-Man from the 60s and 70s, X-Men from the 80s, and much of the work from the Moores and Gaimans and Ellises of the 90s. If you look at my few reviews here in Big Bang (they're all in the July archive now), you'll see that four are Marvel and DC.  (One isn't.)
My point is this:  if I can read the following -- and I do -- you can, too. Your head won't explode.  Your wife won't leave you.  The district attorney will leave you alone.  And you'll be better for it, because these are good.

Without further adieu:

Queen and Country, Oni Press

It doesn't get more timely than this; Queen and Country #4 is about to come out as I write this.  Then, too, I bet if you apply yourself you can find this series, and you should, for (at least) one good reason:

Greg Rucka: Is he prolific?  Is he masterful at mystery?  Is he a breath of fresh air to an incestuous industry?  Yes, yes, yes, and you know all this, or you should.  From Detective Comics to Whiteout to the upcoming Felon, Rucka's touch of the professional crime writer leaves traces of gold all over comicdom.  Here, in Queen & Country, mystery's crazed cousin, the espionage genre, takes the spotlight, and Rucka's novelist eye to detail brings it to exciting life.

I assume this work is what Tom Clancy is like for people who aren't bored to death by Tom Clancy.  Unfortunately, I'm in that last category; Rucka, on the other hand, has a flair for the thriller, allowing me to enjoy even the politics of the spy biz much as I might, say, a movie based on a Tom Clancy novel.  (I don't pretend to be consistent.)  While suspense is almost twisted into a "I need to reread this first" haze of forgetfulness by the bi-monthly schedule, Rucka seems aware of this and does a fine job of keeping the pacing evenly wrapped around the nine-week gaps in the reading.

Some have given guff about the simplistic, almost cartoony art of Queen & Country.  This is indicative of the comic fetish of supposed photorealistic art that crops up from time to time, particularly when "serious topic matter" is involved.  This is done in ignorance, apparently, of the tradition that "realistic" art is almost invariably associated with capes, tights, and that sort of thing, whereas Maus is done with funny animals, and then there's R. Crumb... well, you get the idea.  Rolston's characters are very human, easily distinguishable, and totally absorbing in ways that supposedly realistic "dynamic" posed figures could never be.  (Notice: not one comic I will mention in this column is done by a Kirby or Adams or Lee or whatever.  With all due respect, we've seen that.)

Is this comic perfect?  No.  Its release schedule is frustrating for its genre, and occasionally the pacing seems jumpy.  Nonetheless, it is a heartening venture into territory rarely explored by comics, accomplished by a professional and compatible team of creators.

Amelia Rules!, Renaissance Press

I miss Charles Schulz.  The comic industry, whether it thinks so or not, misses Schulz deeply.  Above my desk, I have an editorial cartoon featuring Snoopy, mounted atop his doghouse, wearing his goggles and scarf, flying to meet a Charlie-Brown-sweatered Schultz outside the pearly gates.  Not only is it simply touching, but it also reminds me of what a power this man had to touch the cultural soul and become such a part of iconography that hardly a person in America would not understand this single panel, and I wager most of us would get a smile out of it.

None of which seems obviously on-topic, because Amelia Rules! is by Jimmy Gownley, not Charles Schulz.  Still, I'm not going to be the first person to draw the connection that I'm clearly about to make, so I'd best just get to it:  Gownley's comic just could be the Peanuts of the 21st century.

Mind you, Amelia and her friends and family are not much like Schulz's creations, which often appeared stuck in the 50's of their origination. Amelia's mother is divorced.  And actually gets to appear in-panel.  And speak.  Still, perhaps the modern child is more aware of the adult word than 50 years ago, or more importantly, perhaps we allow ourselves to believe that when we might not have in days past.  Amelia's introspective ponderings have a depth and honesty that only a child could achieve, free of the pretenses one would expect from her elders.

And that, perhaps, is the charm of this book.  Like Peanuts, the honest lens of the child's mind is directed not only at the amusing pursuits of fellow children, but through that into the realities of modern society.  We laugh at how the young characters interact not because it is strange to us in our maturity, but because it is so familiar, and it is a happy thing to see it for ridiculous in a context that doesn't worry us with its impact.  In other words, in the days of Peanuts, when Lucy pulled the ball out from Charlie Brown's way, it was funny.  When nation-states did it to each other, it wasn't.

No look at children is honest and believable without it being a look, in general, at human behavior.  So far as I've seen, Amelia Rules!, like Peanuts in its day, succeeds.

The Return of Alison Dare, Oni Press

Leaping from one book about children into another, I might find myself hard-pressed to avoid repeating myself.  Alison Dare, however, is no Peanuts, not of the previous century nor this one.  Instead, it is a peculiar melange of familiar environments for the old comics reader.

First, it obviously appeals to us along the lines of the golden and silver ages of comics.  Alison's father is the Blue Scarab, her mother is a famous archaeologist, and at no time do I find myself not expecting someone, somewhere, to shout "Shazam!"  To a point, I love the old comic style; good guys are good, bad guys are seriously bad, and a quick uppercut usually saves the day.  On its own, however, this sort of nostalgia can quickly grow hollow.  Fortunately, this is only one element that Alison Dare brings to the table.

Second, we have the obvious appeal to the young reader.  Alison and her friends' adventures are charming, cute, thrilling, and in their entirety more enticing than those of her parents, which is as it should be -- Alison is the star of this comic.  Her boarding-school chums are the essential young-adventure foils, the brainy Dot and the gee-whiz physical Wendy, who pause only briefly from time to time to inject serious thoughts of real life into otherwise breathtaking hijinks.

Third, however, we have ourselves, and this is the most seductive -- and somewhat subversive -- element in the mix.  Alison's friends follow her parents, not just as interested parties, but as comic fans, thrilling to their exploits as told by Alison, and we are allowed to share in their experience.  When they, in turn, creep along on Alison's adventures, the children we once were creep with them, finally able to experience the comic adventures as we wished to in our youth.  It is not only possible but almost unavoidable to experience this comic as people we once were but thought buried, and it is at once an unnerving and exciting experience.

Perhaps this sounds over the top, but it is the only explanation I have for the experience of reading one issue about a frankly ridiculous storyline on face value.  Being Oni, however, you need not take my word for it.  Short Alison Dare adventures are available on their web site.

True Story, Swear to God, Clib's Boy

This is a special inclusion for a number of reasons.  For one thing, I haven't read an issue of the actual comic yet.  Until its surprise early shipment (or so I am told), I didn't expect it for another month.  For another thing, of course, it is difficult to be objective, the True Story short strips being a regular feature here at the Galaxy.  Nevertheless, I have every reason to believe this is a comic you should be buying.

In part, I can take my belief from the aforementioned short strips.  It is difficult, mind you, to succeed in this format, and what's more, doing so is no indication of performance in the longer sense, unless your comic is going to be a collection of similarly short strips.  Having said that, I learn many things from these strips about Tom Beland's approach.  First, his art is simple and clear, which, as you know by this point in the article, I consider a good thing.  His topics, however, are anything but simple.  Autobiographical in nature, Tom tells us about his life, and life is always complex.  Resisting the urge to pretend things are otherwise, he instead invites the reader to share in his charming befuddledness, like a Dave Barry or a P. J. O'Rourke.  (Doubtless comparisons which will in turn charm Mr. Beland.  Heh.)

(A side note, if I may.  The first time I saw his art, I thought, "You know, this looks like Keith Knight of the K Chronicles."  Naturally, soon after I encountered a strip in which Tom shares an anecdote involving his cartoonist buddy Keith, who looks awfully familiar.  I about had a fanboy seizure.  Anyway.)

While all of this is why I am telling you this comic will be good, it may not sell you on it being great.  Fortunately, I'm not done yet.  Here's what sold me, and maybe it will do the job:  As of this writing, Mr. Beland's latest strip takes on the topic of the still-recent (and moreso at the time of his work) destruction of the World Trade Center.  It is honest and direct, and as such is painful in its rawness.  Tom shares with us his personal thoughts, worries, and fears, and how he chose to deal with the way that the world changed on September 11, 2001.  I could tell you, but I won't; the answer brought me literally to tears and I would hate myself for taking the experience from you.  Go to the Galaxy's home page, select True Story, and see it for yourself.

Nothing I could say after you read that particular strip (#16, I think) could make a difference in comparison.  Read all the strips, then check out this preview of the new comic book, Magic.

Hopeless Savages, Oni Press

It seems almost fawning of me to dip into the Oni well a third time, but here I am, and I didn't even expect it.  I didn't notice Hopeless Savages in Previews, much less order it or expect to ever read it.  It was merely a few simple coincidences; as editor at the time, I happened to read a couple of positive reviews in the Big Bang, and then I was in a friend's new store and wanted to buy something and there it was, as they say.  Not being a fan of Andi Watson, who did only the cover, I shrugged, but why not?  The reviews said it was cool.  What's a few bucks spent to a friend's profit?


Okay, work with me here.  We have a couple of now-aging punk musicians who have brought up a family of punkers (except for the inevitable rebel against the family, who goes to the city and gets a job -- nice touch), and how they relate to the rest of the world, particularly in times of crisis.  After some consideration, I realized where I'd seen this concept before.

That's right.  The Addams Family.

Oh, come on, think about it for a moment.  (I could've said the Munsters, except we're talking subversive, here, and the Munsters doesn't qualify in my book.)  Hopeless Savages turns societal expectations upside down and then, from this perspective, shows us how society itself can be and is the one that's topsy-turvy in many ways.  We get a good laugh out of the face-value conflicts of stereotypes, sure, but on a deeper level we are treated to a clever analysis of social custom from the perspective of, you might say, a group of outsiders.

And let's be honest, the reason this, the Addams Family, the X-Men, the Klingons, and heaven knows what else works is that we identify with the outsiders.  Don't we?  Thousands upon thousands of teenagers clamored for Mister Spock in 1968 because he, like they, knew what it was like to be alienated.  What is, in fact, the heart of punk?  The aggressive acceptance of an alienated state translated into action and music -- and, here, into a comic book story.  We love the Hopeless Savages because they feel far more like us than the generic joes they meet.

Once again, Oni provides some prequel strips for your entertainment on their web site.  Have a look.

If you aren't buying these comics, go get them.  As you can see, I don't believe you'll be sorry.  And keep checking out the Big Bang reviews; you just might find some more gems to put alongside these.

Before I go for this week, a correction from last time: Jamie S. Rich of Oni Press informs me that he's not organizing the auction I discussed as such; James Lucas Jones and Joe Nozemack have been instrumental in putting it together, and Shannon Denton of komikwerks.com collapsed his auction into this one (including many items).  And, as mention, GrayHaven has their auction going, as well.  Jamie refers us to http://www.onipress.com/comicshelp.  Thanks, Jamie!

-- R. Francis Smith