By Erik Grove
I've read a lot of comic books and I read new books every week. There are a lot of things that keep me coming back week after week but the best reason is that I know my favorite comic is probably going end up being something I haven't read yet. I like being surprised by something completely new or discovering a book I missed the first time around. In my first couple of columns I talked about what kind of books reach new readers but in this column, I'm shifting tactics a little bit. In this column, I'm going to talk about comics I recently read that make me want to keep coming back. There are a lot of great books waiting to be read at your comic book vending option of choice but these are my Essential 8 Comics from the Shelf for February.
Action Comics 25-28
Superman is my favorite comic book character. I have Superman paraphernalia all over my house and office; multiple coffee cups, a flask with a Superman shield, multiple Superman baseball caps, pint glasses, posters and even a keychain. Just like any Superman man, there are versions of the character I like more than others but right now I have to say, I love the Superman I'm finding in Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder's new run on Action Comics. In the last 4 issues Pak has defined a Superman that will do the right thing regardless of the cost, that will fight for the innocent without hesitation (even if the innocent look like giant monsters) and is full of integrity and charisma. This is still a younger, brasher, two-fisted New 52 Superman and I've been hesitant about that approach up until now but Pak sells me on it completely.
This Superman has a hell of a heart to go along with the edgy mandarin collar enhanced attitude. Pak has made the very smart choice of pairing Superman with a revamped Lana Lang, an adventurous engineer that never reads like a damsel in distress. Using their dual internal monologues, Pak gives us a quick history lesson on these two former flames turned good friends. He gives us a quick new perspective straight through the crusading Metropolis hero to the more humble, sometimes melancholy farm boy that has lost so much. The characterization is both fresh and, for this longtime Superman fan anyway, very satisfying. The story is full of new characters and ideas, action, twists and turns and a sense of real consequences. The pacing and payoff of the single issue and the overall all story are incredibly well balanced and I haven't even had a chance yet to commend Kuder's phenomenal work. The art in this book is kinetic and fast paced but remains full of emotive expression and gritty detail. This comic is the complete package and the beginning of what I hope is a seminal run on the man of steel.
The Midas Flesh #1-3
The Midas Flesh is about taking a myth very literally and seeing what kind of story you end up with; what would really happen if everything you touched turned into gold? This comic is the brainchild of Canadian web comics guru, Ryan North and his Adventure Time artistic collaborators Braden Lamb and Shelli Paroline. North is the creator and writer of the long-lived and widely shared Dinosaur Comics web comic and knows how to write a talking dinosaur better than anyone else in the world. What he's done with his co-conspirators in The Midas Flesh is create a quirky all-ages comic where science fiction, mythology and miracles collide with a plucky captain, Joey, and her crew (the tough talking, energetic Fatima and Cooper, a talking dinosaur in a necktie, obviously) right in the middle of it all. The comic basically reads like Saturday morning cartoons for slightly weirder kids. The art is exuberant and bright and keeps the tone constant and fun. This is a fun comic for kids and adults and everyone that's a fan of talking dinosaurs. The first 3 issues (of 8) were easily available at my LCS and I think they're very much worth a read.
The Bunker #1
Bleeding Cool has posted some stories about this book, a print adaptation (and coloration) of a digital-only comic Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari released in 2013. It's been wildly successful as a creator owned property and has a great deal of buzz with second printings and a potential multimedia explosion in the works. Beyond all that buzz though, The Bunker is just a really smart and intriguing comic book. Infurnari's art is the first thing that grabs you when you start to read. It's moody and intense. The color wash that's been added to the book for this re-release really ratchets up the tension and emotional resonance. Through the entire comic I felt an oppressive apprehension and gloom.
Infurnari's incredibly work here deserves a lot of the credit for that. The Bunker is Infurnari's highest profile project to date and it's an incredible and memorable effort. I expect Infurnari will be a highly regarded heavyweight comic artist in no time at all. Meanwhile, there's Fialkov who has put in time working for DC (for a notoriously short stint) and now Marvel but still seems to be happiest creating his own story here. The elevator pitch for this book is that 5 friends go into the woods to bury a time capsule before post collegiate life propels them off into different directions but when they go to break ground they find a bunker waiting for them with ominous warnings about their future lives and pending global catastrophe. This story hook is a giant pool of gasoline and Fialkov immediately drops a lit match into of it, creating intense conflict with his characters and blasting off sub plots in several directions. He writes believably likeable characters hurtling toward moral ambiguity with a deft hand and a great ear for natural dialog. A lot of people will be talking about this comic and its well-worth joining that conversation. The first printing has sold-out at the distributor and at many stores but a second print is on the way and it's on Comixology.
Ms. Marvel #1
Ms. Marvel is an important comic book. We know it's important because of the controversy and the media coverage it has generated. The comic stars a new Muslim Ms. Marvel and Muslims in popular culture have been instant controversy for decades for reasons I don't think need to hashed out again in a comic book column. The book is also a daring move on Marvel's part for putting out an ongoing series starring a female character in a market that hasn't been traditionally friendly to superhero books with a female lead. There's been a lot punditry and amateur punditry about the merits of this comic's very existence but all of that loses sight over what's really the most important question: is the comic any good? The answer to that, as far as I'm concerned, is a confident yes. I don't care what your characters look like or where they come from or what kind of story you're telling, the most essential part of good storytelling is simple human empathy. For a character to come alive on the page or on the screen or in your imagination, that character has to have something you relate to. It's why comic readers can find something to connect with and root for in aliens, vampires, Norse Gods or talking dinosaurs and it's why Kamala Khan is a great hero in this comic.
G. Willow Wilson and her editorial and creative cohorts have made Kamala Khan a character that I have more in common with than I don't. I understand her motivations because they're universal motivations. This first issue introduces us to Kamala and her family, a lively and not-at-all homogenous group of Pakistani Americans living in Jersey City. Kamala's parents are protective and want to keep her safe but she wants to go out into the world and get into trouble just like the other kids. She doesn't want to be different anymore. Kamala wants to be someone else, someone that she thinks is more confident or more popular and I'd wager just about everyone that is a teenager or has been a teenager can completely understand that. The one comic that I kept thinking about while reading Ms. Marvel was Runaways and a lot of that is because the comics cover similar territory but it also has a lot to do with Adrian Alphona. Alphona created a completely new kind of teenage world in Runaways and he continues to do so here. There's a surreal confidence and authenticity in Alphona's art that makes it very hard for me to imagine anyone doing the art on this book. Alphona gives Kamala amazing body language and facial expressions that make her come alive on the page. From her scowl followed by her squinted determined eyes as she leaves her parent's dinner table to her kung fu stance as she talks to her Urdu speaking vision Avengers, Kamala is a sulky, enthusiastic and completely human teenage girl that just happens to be Muslim.
This is an Important comic and I don't want to take away from the real risk and significance of it as a symbol in the comics industry but I also don't want all that meta conversation about it to detract from it being just a well-made and very enjoyable comic. So try and forget all those Important Stories about how Important this comic is for a moment because this is really just a comic about teen angst and coming of age and by making Kamala a shapeshifter, Wilson has a wonderful literal and metaphorical way to explore what that feels like. I remember I felt like a shapeshifter that didn't ever feel like I had the mix right when I was a teenager and I remember how terrifying and stupid and clumsy it felt to try and make myself into a Real Grown Up Person. That experience isn't unique to boys or girls, Muslims or white comic column writing dudes in Portland, Oregon. Kamala Khan is the 21st Century Peter Parker and I'm far more excited to read about her than I ever would have guessed and I think a lot of you would be surprised as well.
Alex + Ada #1-4
I like to ask the guys at the comic shop for recommendations and one of the books that I was given as a suggestion was Alex + Ada, a sci-fi drama about a man and the anatomically correct robot he gets for his birthday. I didn't pick up the book then because I had a big stack of other things but later decided to read the first issue digitally to see what it was all about. I immediately got all four issues and read them back to back. Alex + Ada is one of the easiest comics to read that I've read in a long time and it just pulled me happily from page to page, issue to issue with a crisp, direct momentum. It's surprisingly accessible and conversational for a comic book that takes place in a speculative future and involves such heady ideas as the nature of sentience. Alex + Ada is the work of Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn and honestly, I wasn't personally terribly familiar with their previous work and didn't know what to expect. Was this going to be an action romp or a cerebral speculative fiction story? It turns out Alex + Ada has more in common with Spike Jonze's incredible film Her than it does with Terminator. This is a comic about a heartbroken guy named Alex who's looking for a connection and tries to make that connection with a state of the art anatomically correct android that he names Ada. The book takes this concept head on and considers it candidly and naturally. The art and storytelling is smooth and presents a future that is familiar and welcoming. This is an all around smart, well realized and addictive comic.
Image has really built a reputation for putting out cutting edge new comics in the last few years. The publisher has come a long way from a flashy 90s artists' showcase to a place where groundbreaking new concepts come out month after month. In addition to Alex + Ada, Undertow, by the team of Steve Orlando and Artyom Trakhanov is another noteworthy new release from Image on comic store shelves right now. This book focuses on the politics and warfare of an ancient and majestic Atlantis – and the rebels that are fighting to bring it down. It's Aquaman meets Game of Thrones directed by Stanley Kubrik. The story itself feels like it's going to be a nice slow build with a lot of plot to unfold but that's fine because Trakhanov's art is revelatory in all its detailed, gritty glory. There are echoes of Paul Pope and Geof Darrow in Trakhanov's scratchy, ugly characters. The coloring is gorgeous with rich yellows, cool blues, ruddy browns and bloody reds. There's a lot for your eyes to feast on in this book. It's hard to tell from a single first issue but from this introduction I think Undertow may be another memorable entry and very compelling release from Image that's worth your attention.
Gravel: Combat Magician #0-1
Warren Ellis' British vulgarity-spewing, magic and gun-slinging hard case combat magician, Sgt. Major William Gravel is back written by longtime Ellis collaborator (and longtime Gravel creator and original artist) Mike Wolfer paired with artist Gabriel Rearte. If you haven't read every one of the many Gravel comics that have been released in the last 14+ years (I haven't), that's okay because these first two issues quickly give you all you need to know about history of combat magic and Gravel's longtime and recent history. The #0 issue even includes plot breakdowns for every appearance to date. All that stuff aside, what you really need to know about Gravel is that he's John Constantine mixed up with the Punisher, aged to surly perfect and channeling the dirtiest and most vicious ideas floating around in the depraved British brains of the creators. If you're feeling a vacuum now that Hellblazer has gone over to the superhero side, Gravel: Combat Magician should help with your quota of dark magic stories and chain smoking grizzled mystic powered bastards that throw around words that no one ever says in the United States (thank you, Internet for the translations). Wolfer's script gives us a quick and bloody introduction to Gravel and Rearte gives us all the blood, bones and occult symbols we need to make it complete. These first two issues gives us a vicious reminder why Gravel should be unleashed upon the world again and why we should show up to read about it.
This one didn't come out in February or in the last few months but I somehow missed it – for the last 10 or so years. Blankets is Craig Thompson's masterful autobiographical story about coming of age, falling in love for the first time and finding your way in the world. I was challenged to read this book after my first Essential 8 column and I was happy to take that challenge up. I got my copy from Amazon in the mail and cracked the cover to look at the first few pages. Before I knew it I'd read the first 100 pages standing up. Blankets is a thick book (over 600 pages) and that can seem intimidating but it reads with so much grace and tenderness that it's just as comfortable and familiar as your own memories. Thompson's work with this book is so honest and so emotionally dense that however long you take to read and marvel at each of the pages, you'll think about it for far longer afterwards. Blankets is a beautiful, heartbreaking work that I admire and respect as a fan of comics, as a writer and a person. This comic deserves every bit of praise and recognition it's received since release and then some. This book is why I keep reading comics. I hope that everyone that really loves comics has already read Blankets and if you haven't because you haven't gotten around to it (like I didn't get around to it), I hope you remedy that as soon as you can. It's a brave, wonderful, memorable book that should be shared.
Special thanks this month go to Bridge City Comics in Portland, OR for great conversations about comics and a stack of great, new issues. I'll be back for more, guys! Thanks also to everyone that talks comics with me, in the Bleeding Cool comments for these articles, on Twitter or wherever I might find myself with great company.
Agree with me? Disagree with me? Let's talk comics.
Erik Grove is a writer and comic book lover that lives in Portland, OR. Follow him on Twitter @erikgrove and check out his website www.erikgrove.com for comic book adjacent absurdly awesome fiction.