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Q1: A Good Comic is Hard To Find

In 2017 I read fewer comics than I had in any year since I learned to read. The reasons were many: living in a town without a good comic store option*, a near-total disillusionment with what the US comics industry chooses to put in front of its less and less captive audience, working at an excellent real-book store before getting a grownup job, and the evolution of my personal life into something that more accurately resembles a product of its irreparably broken national environment. It's a two way street though! All those things have a high likelihood of leaving you desperate to kick back for a minute or two with a good comic, and in 2018 baby, I am getting on the hunt. What follows is a catalog of a former longbox-a-day obsessive's attempts to find a way back into the medium that once so beguiled him as a reader. Or put more simply, Thoughts On Every Comic That I've Read This Year So Far (But Haven't Already Written About, Duh). I'll attempt a chronological order of encounters here, but really, who cares?

*No good comic stores = a very superhero-heavy list. Before Jack Kirby, Alan Moore, and God, I apologize.

X-Men: Grand Design #1, by Ed Piskor. Marvel, 2017.

Boy, did I want to like this one. I think it's very cool and a Good Thing for Comics that Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree has had as much success as it has - success on such a runaway scale that Marvel decided it would be a good way of turning some cash to give a hot Fantagraphics creator an X-Men book. I know things have changed in comics since I was a kid in the late '90s, but the end of that last sentence still kinda rocks me. (Chris Ware’s Kitty Pryde: Origins is still one of the medium’s great unconsummated unions.) Piskor is nothing less than richly deserving of any project he wants to work on, and I assume this book must have been a labor of love for him. But it is an awkward match of styles, and makes for a frustrating read. 

The only truly high quality X-Men comics are the first 85 issues or so of Chris Claremont's run, a number that includes spin-offs like the original Wolverine series. All the rest of the X-Men related material out there is pretty much the Sahara by comparison; especially if you subtract the material that's either lesser work by Claremont or reliant on his good stuff for its plot and character beats. Yes, this means even the Grant Morrison ones. It's probably because those Claremont comics are just about the peak of achievement for mainstream superhero comics post-Kirby and pre-Moore.

There is much more that's good about them than I can address here, but if I had to boil it down, I'd say that what makes them so special is their emotional focus. Claremont has an exceptional willingness not just to give extended screen time to characters' feelings (Stan Lee did that), but to explore the ambiguities and contradictions of those feelings in enough depth that the actions taken by pretty much every character feel legitimately like choices, with choices' potential for triumph or tragedy - and not some heroic destiny that had probably always been carved somewhere into the fundament of the Source Wall. Furthermore, each choice made or not made has its effect on the characters' narrative as a whole. Claremont's X-Men, basically, avoids stasis for much longer than is usual in an ongoing superhero saga, and maintains a higher standard of immediacy and drama than almost any other during that run. The early genre-inflected Xaime Love & Rockets is a reading experience that resembles nothing more than those Claremont issues – except that it's not as good.

This being said, Piskor's project, an attempt to tell the entire story of everything that ever happened to the X-Men characters in chronological order, is an extremely tough ask. It's not the actual stuff that happens in the best X-Men comics that makes readers care about them and suffer through the inferior ones chasing that high; it's how it feels to watch it happen. Told from the extreme bird's eye view Piskor's project imposes, it's tough to connect with the material in the same way. The effect is a bit like watching a great movie on an airplane's seat-back screen and headphones. Piskor does an admirable job of giving the master narrative's biggest moments some pop, and composes quite a few excellent, iconic panels. A's for effort and execution, but this idea would have worked better with almost any other superhero property.

Bakune Young volume 1, by Toyokazu Matsunaga. Pulp, 2000.

Both Jonny Negron and the Journal’s Joe McCulloch have recommended this manga to me in the highest and most unambiguous terms, so of course I immediately, uh, spent years of unsuccessful searching before I finally found some used copies. Bakune Young takes the plot of like every other manga (a youth finds their calling and decides to scrupulously devote every atom of their effort to becoming the very tip-top bestest in the world at it) and hilariously applies it to common criminality, its thuggish banana-nosed protagonist diligently chasing down his goal of ruling the “yen-tire world” with a one-man crime wave. This is a singular comic, or at least it looks that way from my western perspective. It reads like a Japanese version of what we might have gotten if Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, & co. had made work that was a lot more aesthetically successful. Fast-paced, balls to the wall action comics with idiosyncratic and detail-rich drawings and a plot that won’t stop bouncing off the walls for long enough to cohere, Bakune Young nevertheless doesn’t really live or die on the quality of its fight scenes, which is medium high but not jaw-dropping.

Where Matsunaga distinguishes himself is with how fucking amazing he makes the littler stuff in his comic look. A panel of a dude dying from a corkscrew to the dome is good, but far better is the way the little rivulet of blood kind of plops out of his head in the next frame. A hitman with a lifelong grudge against our hero makes a worthy antagonist, but what’s better is how he’s so mad about it that he’s become physically incapable of moving his face out of an expression of crimson rage that only deepens as the book goes on. The best scene in the book is a five-page set piece of a distinguished police official getting more and more enraged about his combover flopping out of position. The moments where people find themselves in situations where they just can’t keep it together anymore are Matsunaga’s bread and butter, and he twists his plot, such as it is, to incorporate as many as possible. Each one results in highlight reel cartooning of an extremely specific nature.

Matsunaga is possessed of both serious action chops and a wonderful, natural facility for drawing funny stuff, and he walks that line like a champion gymnast. Bakune Young is the comics equivalent of those juices they sell with aloe vera cactus chunks at the bottom of the bottle. Half of the reactions will probably be baffled revulsion, and even its proponents will think twice about recommending it, knowing it’s weird as fuck, but boy does it ever scratch an itch that’s tough to get at otherwise.

The Authority: Under New Management, by Bryan Hitch & Warren Ellis and Frank Quitely & Mark Millar. WildStorm, 2000.

If Claremont's X-Men stuff is the pinnacle of superheroics pre-Watchmen, there's at least a case to be made for The Authority (both the Ellis and Millar versions) as a high water mark post-. Hellboy and Fury Max are both better, sure, but those are only kinda sorta superhero books. The Authority wades right into the sewer. Its big draw was to take Alan Moore's cynicism about what it is that superheroes are as read without trying to match Watchmen's heaviness and nihilism. Instead Ellis brought decompressed storytelling to superhero comics and added a dash of his technophilic, supposedly "hard won" optimism, which never actually explains what was hard about its winning. It's aged incredibly poorly, but still reads alright if you don't think about anything but the story you're looking at. Following up, Millar took his first big hack at the half 2000AD-cynical, half South Park-pop humorous schtick that's made him millions since. Both of these outlooks have become annoying tics in the years since The Authority scandalized Wizard magazine's readership, but here you get the sense that both writers are actually attempting to develop viewpoints, not just exhibit them. There's expansion on themes, a push being made, and it comes across.

These are also some of the few 21st century superhero comics where the art seems to be of primary concern. Hitch's approach, like Ellis's, has aged badly, but if you want to understand why every genre comic out right now looks the way it does, this is the urtext. The constant photo referencing is a lot to handle, but back when the standard approach to drawing mainstream comics was to figure out how your cartoon version of whatever you had to draw was going to look and then lay it down, seeing the Google Image version of everything instead just made it feel like you were in the hands of a particularly masterful stylist. It wasn’t until everybody else figured out they could do it that way too that the flaw in this idea became apparent: it made everybody’s drawings look exactly the same, both in composition and execution. Hitch’s commitment to background detail and (especially) Laura DePuy’s skilled coloring put their version of ctrl-shift-4 comics on a higher plane than most, at least.

Hitch and Ellis can lay a pretty legitimate claim to being the Jack Kirby and Stan Lee of 21st century comics. They aren’t as good (duh), but the blueprint for doing superheroes they laid down here has been as widely and slavishly imitated. Extreme violence that paints itself as acts of hope and optimism and “topicality” that doesn’t actually refer to anything that exists in the real world on the story side; fake CGI blockbuster art filling the pages. If you want to blame what you see at the comic store these days on something, here it is – though at least you can read the Hitch/Ellis Authority all the way through and enjoy it if you suspend your snark a little, which is far more than one can say for most of its offspring.

Frank Quitely, as in just about every comic his work has appeared in, is this book’s biggest star. His post-Hitch work on The Authority is some of his most distorted and grotesque, the vivid and restless imagination that powers all his pages drifting into darker territory than we usually see. There’s the famously censored panels of extreme gore that are probably what most people who remember this comic think of first, but every panel of Quitely and Millar’s libertarian good guys vs. military-industrial superheroes arc looks equally gross and slimy. Quitely has a blast creating wacko versions of pretty much every Marvel character up to and including H.E.R.B.I.E., and the story is a black humored, bad-faith test run for Millar’s work on The Ultimates, which ended up as the engine the Avengers movie franchise still runs on. It’s a little crazy that you can draw a short, straight line from stuff like this to the most financially successful commercials for the US army of all time, but then superhero comics have never really managed to take serious discomfort out of the reading experience. (The Captain America dude is unbuckling his belt to rape the dude getting his brains smashed out right after this sequence, btw.)

The authoritarian political subtext of Ellis’s comic becomes text within a few pages of Millar’s arrival, with the heroes telling Bill Clinton in no uncertain terms to fuck off or they might kill him when he tries to get them to do what he wants them to. It’s a scene with genuine power, even two decades down the line – “I can’t believe they did this in a mainstream superhero comic” is pretty much always an annoying opinion to share, but annoying or not, here, at least, that reaction is earned by the material.

Wolverine/Gambit: Victims, by Tim Sale & Jeph Loeb. Marvel, 1995.

When I go to a comic store that only has superhero stuff on sale (most of the time these days), I usually look first at the selection of Wolverine, Batman, and Punisher comics. These have historically maintained a higher standard than most other hero books, I believe because of the smaller amount of imagination necessary to do a serviceable job on them. If you’re doing the Silver Surfer or some shit, you’ve really gotta cast a wide net and pull in something pretty different with it to make a mark. But with my favorite three rough boys, all you have to do is concoct a situation that forces the main character into committing acts of violence. From there, they pretty much write themselves, differing only in milieu and the level of sanction their heroes find it acceptable to administer: Batman usually stops at unconsciousness, Wolverine at grievous bodily harm, and for the Punisher only death will suffice. Like the novels of Jim Thompson, these comics deliver on a hyper-masculine, voyeuristic formula, elevated by the exoticism of their settings and the particularities of their protagonists’ pathologies. And as with Thompson, if you come in with the right expectations it’s hard to go wrong.

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale are a pretty reliable team, if often prone to corniness. This is probably their worst effort, though. In the middle of a night that began with my ex-wife telling me she was moving out, continued with a viewing of The Passion of Joan of Arc in a nearly deserted theater, and didn’t not end with me lying in my own vomit, I attempted to grab some uplift and distraction with the purchase of this book; it was too lame for me to make it 20 pages in. Lest the reader think I wasn’t reading under ideal conditions, I tried again just now and didn’t even make it 10 because it’s boring as hell. Try Blood Hungry next time you want a Wolverine book, that one is pretty raw.

Avengers: Under Siege, by John Buscema, Tom Palmer, & Roger Stern. Marvel, 1987.

Speaking of Wizard magazine, I used to have the issue where they did a character-by-character list of the best Marvel stories of all time. This was their pick for the Avengers one (Civil War hadn't come out yet then). The Avengers comics are such a middling, unremarkable run of stories that I always kind of assumed this one was picked out of a hat as the "best" because it has good art by the same team the whole way through and it's the most representative, with a big group of heroes fighting a big group of villains. In typical Marvel fashion, the collection was out of print for years and only recently became available again as a 40 dollar softcover, so I had to wait hella long after reading that Wizard article and find a copy in a Goodwill to discover that the Under Siege story cycle is truly a cut above. 

1987 was a weird time in superhero comics. The direct market had opened a new landscape up, but the vast majority of people both working at and running the big comics companies were shuffling around nervously, wondering whether it was safe to go explore it or not. The Marvel and DC’s of this period are either reactionary, retrenching the pat toothlessness of superhero stories because somebody should think of the children, or they're overeager, throwing themselves headlong into the kind of ridiculous inappropriateness that assumes serious substance abuse issues on the part of those involved when they read the stuff after the dust has cleared. In Under Siege, Buscema, Palmer, and Stern do an expert job of finding the middle path. 

It looks like a superior version of a classic Marvel comic, with big, powerful cartoon-realistic figures dominating every expertly blocked panel and well observed backgrounds of NYC pulling a ton of weight to situate you inside the story. And it mostly acts like a typical Marvel comic too, with the action switching back and forth between good guys and bad guys, slowly braiding the individual characters' motivations and conflicts into a narrative with the casual touch of a veteran deli counterman putting together a (hero) sandwich. That's a weird metaphor, but I think it works: this isn't the finest work comic books have ever played host to, but it's really good, and it doesn't leave you wishing you were reading something else. Comics like this one are engines: you tune them right and they take you somewhere. The reason they're so rare, both now and historically, is the harsh reality that making superhero comics has never been something that very many people gifted with top-flight creative talents have wanted to do. So you get work made by artists who have difficulty not fucking up, with just getting out of the way and letting their stories run. Buscema, Palmer, and Stern are all consummate professionals with a ton of experience in not fucking up - their whole stint on Avengers comics is pretty good. The reason this story excels their other ones is that they imbibe a little of the grit that was beginning to spread over superheroes at the time. Not too much, not enough to make Under Siege feel like anything other than a classic Marvel blockbuster, but enough to make it feel like this one is special, like the guys doing it were committed to going the extra mile on it. 

The story itself - a group of villains who've never been able to defeat the Avengers singlehandedly decide to team up for another bite at the apple - is manifestly regular. It's the extra touches that sharpen it. The villain whose powers the bad guys' plan hinges on, Blackout, is a paranoid schizophrenic, and not a very high-functioning one. Everybody jockeys for control of him throughout the book, but it's kinda tough to control somebody who's completely off his rocker. It's rare to read hero comics with a character who's a genuinely unpredictable wildcard, but here you go. Better still are the leering, drooling facial expressions Buscema and Palmer give him throughout, which recall some of the grotesque images in Steve Bissette and John Totleben's Swamp Thing work. 

The violence on display is also supercharged just a bit - again, not enough to make it feel like a sadistic Frank Miller comic, but enough to make you, the reader, forget you've seen a million superhero fight scenes before and kinda go whoa! In a great sequence, most of the villains have no idea what to do once they've cracked the supposedly impregnable Avengers Mansion and neutralized our heroes, so they just decide to beat everybody the fuck down, really mash 'em into paste. Then when they're done with that they literally go into their rooms and fuck with all their stuff. There are two kinds of supervillains. There's the tragically misguided but brilliant ones like Lex Luthor and Magneto, whose villainy has scope and vision, and then there's antisocial bruisers like the guys in Under Siege: Mr. Hyde, Zemo, the Grey Gargoyle, and company. Comics featuring the former type are never shy about showing us glimpses of the worlds their nemeses imagine and strive for, but rarely do we have occasion to consider what would happen if one of the more thuggish villains actually won a fight. In this one they do, we get to actually see it, and the results are bracingly ugly and sordid. 

But still: light touch here! The sharper edges of Under Siege never feel out of place or beyond the pale. They're of a piece with the rest of the fictional world being portrayed - it feels like we don't see events like this story unfold in cape comics not because we're not allowed to by the publishers, but because in the Marvel universe they're genuinely rare and catastrophic. There's a thrill to be had in seeing John Buscema, he of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, turn his quintessentially superheroic style to a story where the heroes spend whole issues losing. And Buscema never looked better than when Palmer was inking him over. It isn't Watchmen - it's not going to convince anybody who doesn't already like superhero comics - but this is my favorite Marvel thing I've read in a long time.

Batman Beyond #17, by Phil Hester & Dan Jurgens. DC, 2018.

Is there a format less consistently disappointing than the standard 24-page single issue serialized comic? People who wax wist about these things disappearing are either nostalgia tripping or just plain wrong. Sure, I love it too when somebody can bang out a really great issue of something that uses brevity to its advantage and stands above the rest of the crop - but just on a case by case basis, it seems to me like well over 99 percent of single issue comics should be something other than single issue comics. By and large, it's a format whose time has passed. 

The Batman Beyond TV cartoon is probably my favorite superhero story after those Chris Claremont X-Men comics. One day I'll write about it at length, so for now suffice it to say that I like Batman Beyond enough to buy a single issue DC comic of it after not having bought any of those for a few years, just because of the title. I would desperately love to read a good Batman Beyond comic. This one is the opposite of that. If this comic was incorporated into the TV show, it would take up about three minutes of screen time, and that estimate honestly feels a little generous. In it, Batman Beyond is midway through a fight with Stalker, who's one of the show's coolest villains but here could be standing in for literally any other character. Stalker almost takes off Batman's mask but doesn't, while in the Batcave the aged Bruce Wayne and Batman's kid brother talk concernedly about how the fight’s going. Then Batman's girlfriend calls them up to do what the protestors in that Kardashian/Pepsi commercial wanted and join the conversation. Another villain and another hero show up to the fight. The comic ends. 

I simply cannot imagine anyone enjoying this issue. It is unsatisfying on every level imaginable. Not only is there no character development, there are no characters, just dialogue. There is no setting, or even any establishing shots. If you haven’t seen the cartoon, you’d have no way of knowing it’s even supposed to be set in the future. Its “big” fight scene doesn’t begin, and it doesn’t end. When people in a decade or two wonder why DC stopped publishing single issue comics? When they ask why comic book stores stopped existing? Forcing products like this one into an already brutal retail landscape is why. This book is an existential threat to the comics industry. And the thing is, I don't get the sense that Batman Beyond #17 is any worse or less substantial than anything else DC is putting out in this format right now. Buying a bag of BBQ chips, or a blunt wrap, or gum, is simply a far more rational and rewarding consumer choice than buying a single issue DC comic. This is an item truly without worth.

Oh, and also it's got this soul destroying ad in the back, in which DC advertises its new raping-the-corpse-of-Watchmen comic by getting !!!THEIR OWN FUCKING EMPLOYEES!!! to tell you how "nerdy" it is. If suicide is even a whisper of a hint of a blip on the radar for you, choose life and be sure to avoid DC comics at all costs.

The Beef #1, by Shaky Kane, Tyler Shainline, & Richard Starkings. Image, 2018. 

Another case of the single issue format making for a disappointing read - here, winging something that might otherwise be pretty cool. The Beef has a great set of guys working on it, it looks really nice, and it's got a few interesting ideas about how to construct a good issue. But the story it's telling is not properly shaped for even a compelling chunk of it to fit inside a standard comic book. It's a superhero comic (albeit an incredibly offbeat one) where we don't see the hero until the last page of the first issue, and the world simply does not now and has never needed any of those (ever). Kane does his usual great job, but the issue stops before he gets to draw much that's in his weirdo wheelhouse - talking heads and three or four stray panels of animal slaughter are not what the people need from a Shaky Kane comic. There's a nice rhythm as the pages switch back and forth between the hero's childhood and his present, but it doesn't get a chance to add up to anything more dramatic than seeing that Shaky can do a great job of drawing the same characters as kids and adults. The way we’re shown how awful the villains are is that they’re really, really racist, and while it's definitely Good to put it out there as unambiguously as possible that racism is Bad, with little accompanying context (or really, content) it feels perilously close to exploitative. 

I have confidence that The Beef will turn out to be a good comic, and possibly a very good one, once its 5-issue run has concluded. Shaky and Tyler are very talented and very cool individuals who deserve as much support and attention as they can get. But this comic's medium of delivery seriously disadvantages it.

Twilight of the Bat, by Josh Simmons & Patrick Keck. Cold Cube Press, 2017.

Reading this was the longest five minutes I’ve spent on anything in a while. There is magic in what Josh Simmons does - that’s as hackneyed a phrase possible, but it feels like the truest way to put what I’m thinking. Much like the musician Dominick Fernow, Simmons not only identifies but captures and exhibits the frothing blood and debilitating darkness hiding on the opposite coin-side of the world we inhabit: the hatred, the violence, the meaninglessness, the despair. The Negative, in sum. Simmons’ concepts are mostly pretty archetypal or pretty obvious, stock horror movie setups or perverted deviations on popular themes (this bootleg Batman vs. Joker comic is the latter). What makes Simmons’ readings of them so special is how easily he’s able to drill right into their soft and pulsating cores and deliver what feel like definitive versions again and again and again. His Batman works are perfect examples.

It’s easy to see the grossness and seaminess oozing out from the cracks in the Batman mythos. Lol Batman is gay, Lol Batman is a fuckin’ fascist, and Lol Batman is a sadistic pervert are all cultural touchstones with as much cachet to them as any of the actual comics DC has published (all of which po-facedly refuse to acknowledge any of the above memes, and make them more powerful in so doing). But as easy as it all is to yuk at, it’s tough to dramatize. There have been a ton of parody comics that make their dark-cowled heroes’ peccadilloes into figures of fun, but none of them contain more than a tiny fraction of the genuine article’s power. None, that is, except Simmons’ two Batman bootlegs, which comfortably take their place alongside the best of the official Batman stories.

The reason Simmons’ probings of the Batman corpus’ private parts are so much better than anyone else’s is that he’s not making fun of anything; he’s just making comics. Simmons’ brainwave wasn’t to see that there’s some fucked up shit about Batman - any seven year old can tell you that - but to see that this particular fucked up shit was a perfect match for his own personal aesthetic, that he could accomplish something by working with it. His Batman stories emphasize the wrongness of Batman’s signature violence and Freudian nightmare of sexuality not in order to say anything about Batman, but because those are things that Simmons is good at exploring. They’re good comics first, good Batman comics second.

Twilight of the Bat is the sequel to Simmons’ 2007 comic Batman, later retitled Mark of the Bat for aboveground publication. That story displayed a Batman at the height of his powers - the one we read about in mainline DC stuff - at the beginning of a shift out of Wayne Manor and into a feral mode of living, his obsession with doing violence to people who break the law tipping over into torture and disfigurement. It’s a great comic, not because of how nasty it is but because of how true it feels, how Simmons makes it feel like his version of Batman is still actually Batman and not a homunculus being animated remotely. Like in Michael Comeau’s bootleg X-Men comics, what’s most special about it is how well Simmons the writer grasps the character he’s working with, and uses that grip on the steering wheel to turn said character to his own purposes. If there was a smart editor at DC, they would hire Simmons to do an out-of-continuity Batman comic with a sympathetic artist. It couldn’t be like these ones, of course, but his understanding of what makes Batman tick is strong enough that he could absolutely cross over and make a good comic that would please the official version’s audience.

Anyhow, the comic at hand takes place some time after the conclusion of Mark of the Bat. A mysterious cataclysm has completely destroyed Gotham City, leaving only Batman and the Joker alive to wander its wastes together. In 20 pages, Simmons knocks out a ton of legitimately iconic Batman moments, the kind only somebody informed and appreciative of the source material can muster. The Joker kisses Batman; Batman finally laughs at something the Joker does; Batman tells the Joker his origin; the Joker spends the whole comic setting up an elaborate joke on Batman whose punchline is revealed at the end; Batman kills the Joker. What’s really amazing is that none of this stuff ever happens in any of the in-continuity Batman comics, but Simmons is able to make it feel like you’re witnessing huge moments in the lives of the characters you’ve always read about, the ones you’ve always known should happen but somehow never actually did.

It’s also just an incredibly dark, despairing work of horror comics, one that faces down the apocalypse and somehow gives in without having to flinch. It’s an improvement on Simmons’ (very good) graphic novel Black River: the nuclear-winter setting is quite similar, but the iconic characters provide a counterpoint to it that makes it feel all the more brutal. While the motivating emotional tenor of Mark of the Bat was fear and anger, Twilight of the Bat paints a picture of hopelessness and defeat that is yet more affecting. Even if you don’t like or read Batman comics, there’s a lot of value on the pages here.

Much of that value is supplied by artist Patrick Keck, who I sincerely apologize for giving short shrift to here. His dense, frenzied art looks a good deal like Simmons’ own, lacking the pleasing roundness and lightly arranged lines, but making up for it with expressiveness and commitment to his material. The bombed-out Gotham City backgrounding the action looks like a more concrete version of Mat Brinkman or Gary Panter, and the contrast between the physicalities of the lumbering, glowering Batman and the unhinged, manic Joker makes their back-and-forth dialogue as engrossing as the best of the Bugs and Daffy team-up cartoons. Though the facial expressions are drawn laboriously, they never fail to convey the precise coloring of each word balloon. Keck does just as much as Simmons to make this comic feel like the real Batman, but his is the more difficult feat, because he does everything in a style that’s light years from anything we’d ever see in a real Batman comic. If stuff like that shitty Batman Beyond one illustrates everything wrong with the single-issue comics format, this one is a display of its ability to mesmerize. In 20 pages, Simmons and Keck give us more quality as the last decade of Batman continuity has. More diarrhea scenes, too.

Qoberious vol. 1, by DRT. Kvorious Comics, 2018.

One of my favorite truths about the comics medium is that you can get away with putting together stories that just wouldn't fly in other forms as long as the art is good enough. Some of the best ones are exactly that, and here's a perfect example. Qoberious sounds like a top five pick in the 2023 NFL draft, but it's actually a lovely looking book that slowly erects a story atop a foundation of formalist exploring, so the dramatic climax is that you're actually following a narrative and investing in characters by the end. 

The art of DRT (whose actual first name seems to be Daniel) is the big hook, soft and pillowy-smooth cartooning with equal parts Vaughn Bode, Jesse Jacobs, and The Simpsons in its genetics. Big, expressive figures, usually masked and partially woolen, share space with geometric patterns and pastoral landscapes as they do stuff and occasionally converse. None of this is outside the Fort Thunder playbook, but none of those comics looked this pulled together and accessible. DRT's rounded, open style makes everything look like it's moving in slow motion and made out of sentient marshmallow fluff, sweet and chewy and addictive. When he starts using color midway into the book the rich, musty tones are like adding a nip of Fernet to your dessert. 

Maybe I'm using decadent metaphors because the story seems to call for it. What begins as baffling, charming nonsense slowly blooms into an elliptically told story about the primitive inhabitants of a human-built AI world and the bizarre practices they undertake to commune with the off-panel Gods (that'd be us, natch). DRT builds a compellingly closed system of a world, one we are allowed to peek into but never come very close to understanding. Given his story's setup, that's a solid narrative choice, but this comic also feels like it comes from a legitimately personal place, like the weird quasi-sexual interactions or rituals we're reading about weren't calculated for the proper dramatic impact but simply directed their creator to draw them. Wedded to such a pleasing drawing style, this makes for powerful reading. This comic asks something of its audience, but if you don't mind giving, it can enthrall. It ends with the classic advisory "To Be Continued", as the "ice comet" the title character has spent the entire comic embedded inside of approaches earth, and if you make it that far it's hard not to want more. A very promising debut.

Oh, and I know us crowned tastemakers aren't supposed to let stuff like this affect our opinions of the comics we write about (yeah right), but it bears mentioning that with this book I received a note stating that in 2009 its artist survived a hemorrhagic stroke and was forced to re-teach himself how to speak, write, and draw using his non-drawing hand. It's very rare indeed that the comics world serves up the kind of inspiring comeback story that we're more used to seeing in sports; so I'd like to take this opportunity to publicly congratulate DRT on what he's doing, and say that I for one hope he continues doing it for a long time to come. Looks like there's a good chance we'll all get some cool comics out of it in the bargain.

See you guys in summer for my Q2 report!


10 Responses to Q1: A Good Comic is Hard To Find

  1. Hey Matt! It’s been great to see you slowly coming back to writing about comics. I look forward to future installments.

  2. This is fun as hell and I’m excited for the next installment. Also I can’t believe that someone wrote about “Twilight of the Bat” and namechecked Dominick Fernow and IT WASN’T ME.

  3. Zack Soto says:

    This is the kind of comics grab bag column I want to read. Thank you!

  4. Craig says:

    Isn’t that kind of Ed Piskor’s thing, though? The art in Hip-Hop Family Tree is good enough that people overlook how flat and wikipedia-y the actual writing is. When he tries to slow down and write more like a person than an encyclopedia, it gets even worse. He’s a great illustrator and a good summarizer, but he has yet to write his own story that doesn’t sound like it was written by a person who only reads comics.

  5. Jones, one of the Jones boys says:

    Fuck yeah Bakune Young!!

    If anything, you’re underselling it. (Bakune himself is a great unsympathetic protagonist — physically and morally repulsive, somehow both Batman-level competent and possibly literally mentally retarded). Wait’ll vols 2 & 3– things get weird

    Buscema/Palmer/Scheele on Avengers was the Platonic ideal of superhero art for me as a kid. I still unironically love how frickin drab and unglamorous they make everyone look. Dr Druid fit right fucking in; everyone else looks one or two years — at *most* — from being equally swipe-left-able

  6. Jones, one of the Jones boys says:

    Also:

    “If suicide is even a whisper of a hint of a blip on the radar for you, choose life and be sure to avoid DC comics at all costs.”

    There’s your blurb for their next in-house Doomsday Clock ad

  7. BradC says:

    Sadly, The Beef #2 might be even less satisfying than #1. This time it’s an actionless last page bad guy debut, we don’t need any more of those either.

  8. Will says:

    This was a very pleasant read.

  9. Zack Blackstone says:

    Ed Piskor is not a “great illustrator”, Craig. He is a clumsy and awkward cartoonist with with no chops as a visual storyteller. There’s a lot of that going around at Fantagraphics these days. Fucking ‘team comics’.

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