Recommendation Archive

December: Avengers Academy, by Christos Gage

Avengers Academy is possibly the best book Marvel is currently publishing. Written by Christos Gage and drawn by a number of fantastic artists (including Mike McKone, Sean Chen, Tom Raney, and soon Tom Grummett), Avengers Academy tells the tale of 6 new teenage superhumans who share a history of capture and torture at the hands of H.A.M.M.E.R. director Norman Osborn. In the wake of Norman Osborn’s fall from grace, these troubled teens (Veil, Striker, Mettle, Finesse, Hazmat, and Reptil) have been taken under the Avengers’ wing to become the inaugural class of Avengers Academy. But, as the kids very quickly discover, they weren’t chosen because they have the best potential to become heroes – they were chosen because the Avengers fear that, without guidance, they might turn into villains.

What separates this book from the dozens of other teen superhero books that have passed through comic shop shelves over the years? The answer is Christos Gage, a writer who has rapidly risen to become one of Marvel’s brightest stars. Gage’s work deals with consequences at a level that few other superhero writers are willing to tackle. No canon, no matter how old, is irrelevant for Gage. He expertly weaves the past and the present (without, it should be noted, relying on fans’ assumed knowledge of past stories) to illustrate the ways that past experiences and actions shape the lives and futures of all human beings. The Avengers Academy faculty includes characters like Hank Pym and Pietro Maximoff, characters who have made their fair share of mistakes and want to pass along the lessons they’ve learned to the next generation. The lives of superheroes are difficult and messy, and this book addresses that fact with a rare honesty.

Yet the book is far from glum and gloomy. Ultimately Avengers Academy is a story of hope, of adults trying to help kids and kids trying to help themselves and each other. The kids have their problems, but they’re still very much kids – they even have a prom! – and their interpersonal relationships are bright spots amid the stresses of battle. They have successes to match their failures, and the book is frequently quite funny. I rarely finish an issue without a smile on my face.

For those whose interest has been piqued, I highly recommend picking up all the trade paperbacks of the series so far. But for those looking to dip their toes in, the book’s recent status quo change – moving the school to the old West Coast Avengers headquarters and adding new characters – is a perfect jumping-on point. Pick up last month’s issue 21 and see what the fuss is all about.

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November: Thor (2011)

2011 has been a banner year for superhero movies, with no less than five major motion pictures dedicated to the spandex set. X-Men: First Class was a little gloomy for my tastes, and the less said about Green Lantern, the better, but I loved Captain America and even the offbeat third-stringer Green Hornet. The only DVD I pre-ordered, though, was Thor.

Having never actually read any comics with Thor in them, my perception of the character was based on Norse mythology, which is why about half an hour into the movie, I leaned towards my friend – a lifelong Marvel fan – and whispered, “You never told me Thor was for girls!” And I was only being a little bit facetious. After all, this is a movie about a (very, very, very) handsome prince with long flowing hair who struggles through adversity in order to earn his birthright and the love of his life. It’s a Disney movie with more punching and fire-spewing Scandanavian robots! Honestly, if a cartoon bluebird had perched on Thor’s finger while he was galloping across that rainbow bridge on his pretty white horse and all three of them had burst into song, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised.

Or, to put it another way, this is the only superhero movie I can think of that spends any time on the female gaze (lingering shots of George Clooney’s Bat-nipples don’t count). Look, obviously I don’t think men and women are genetically predisposed to like certain things – this is a website about women and superhero comics, after all. But Thor, besides being a funny, touching, well-acted epic with absolutely gorgeous cinematography, is chock-full of things women are socialized to appreciate: a climax that’s as emotionally wrought as it is physically exhilarating. Character growth that’s about learning to be peaceful and thoughtful and responsible instead of warlike and arrogant. Family. Romance. Interconnectivity. Chris Hemsworth’s bare torso and twinkly blue eyes. (Sigh!)

Plus, in a genre where women tend to revolve around the central hero like helpless satellites with great hair, the women of Thor are wonderfully refreshing. Jane Foster is a scientist first and foremost; sure, Thor’s dreamy and all, but she’s mainly focused on retrieving her research, which is confiscated by SHIELD early on. Darcy gets all the best lines, and hell, just the fact that the comic relief character/assistant scientist is female is astonishing. Sif is as accomplished a warrior as any of the male gods, and never needs saving – just a reminder that retreating is sometimes the better part of valor. Only Frigga gets a rushed, one-note treatment, and even then it involves her killing a frost giant with a sword.

Thor’s not a perfect movie – at times it felt a little rushed, something that has never been said before about any Kenneth Branagh movie ever – but it’s an excellent one, with some of the best treatment of female characters in the genre. And it’s out on DVD, so if you missed it in theaters, now’s your chance!

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September: Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy by Fumi Yoshinaga

I’ve got a weakness for foodie manga. Yes, it’s a genre of Japanese comics about eating, and by all accounts it should be boring stuff. Typically, foodie manga meshes food facts (the cultural history of a dish, how it’s best prepared) with characters over-reacting to the deliciousness of said food, all within a candy-coated semblance of a plot that only exists to get the characters to eat more and talk more about food. It sounds boring, but it’s not. Trust me on this.

Enter Fumi Yoshinaga’s Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy, which, despite having a mouthful for a title (GROAN), is one of the better foodie manga I’ve read. Perhaps it’s the form. Not Love is a series of 15 vignettes that take place at 15 real restaurants in Tokyo. It’s heavier on plot than typical foodie manga, and follows a year or so in the lives of manga artist Y-Naga and her friends as they enjoy phenomenal meals and stumble through careers and relationships. It is very loosely based on Yoshinaga’s life (see the similarity in names and careers between Y-Naga and the author), and features a great cast of rotating characters.

I was particularly impressed with a chapter in which Y-Naga takes her friend A-Dou out for sushi. Y-Naga has written comics about gay characters, but never realized that A-Dou was gay. Throughout the dinner, the two bond over an incredibly illustrated meal, and Y-Naga explores her own prejudices and assumptions about gay culture. It’s a little heavy-handed at times, but nice to see such a subject addressed with some nuance.

Not Love is a travelogue of sorts, but also serves as a cultural document. It works well in translation, providing an inside peek into contemporary Japanese food culture. It occurred to me more than once while reading that I needed to take this book with me as a restaurant guide when I go to Tokyo.

Yoshinaga’s other works that have been translated into English include Ooku and All My Darling Daughters. Both are worth a read as well.

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September: Judge Anderson: The Psi-Files Vol.1 by John Wagner & Alan Grant, Brett Ewins, David Roach and others

Mega-City One is a crime-filled, anarchic dictatorship at the best of times, barely kept under control by the monstrous Justice Department. And with the supernatural, the terrorist, and the mad running around the city, the Judges have to send in the literal thought police: the men and women of Psi-Division. Most commercial of all the Psi-Judges is Cassandra Anderson – she knows what you’re thinking!

Originally a supporting character for Judge Dredd, the irreverent and vivacious Anderson was a big enough hit with the readers to keep coming back and quickly get upgraded to the lead in 2000 AD’s first Dredd’s spin-off strip. With a quick wit and line of informal puns, irritating and bewildering the stiffer Judges (which is most of them), Anderson makes for a very different lead character. Her lighter attitude also means the strip carries more of a punch when it goes for the harder-edged, bleaker, and more disturbing moments – Dredd being an uncompromising bastard who does questionable things is what Dredd does, but Anderson is more human and it’s more of a shock.

Psi Files Vol.1 collects almost every Anderson strip from the 1980s, and that is a lot of strips: this is a weighty tome that will take you several days to get through. Unlike with the Dredd Case Files, this strip started after 2000 AD had gotten a bit more sophisticated and organised: the strips are well-crafted works from the jump. But the 80s was also a time when 2000 AD got gradually more mature (relatively speaking) and willing to experiment, so we start with a barnstorming, blackly comic action saga with Anderson & Dredd’s nemesis Judge Death and end with a moodier, disquieting involving child abuse. It’s a fascinating look at the evolution of the comic and the writers, especially when John Wagner departs and Alan Grant (Batman) takes over the strip solo.

The art is a wide-ranging mix of styles, from Brett Ewins dynamic cartooning to Arthur Ranson’s realism; particular standout work goes to David Roach, who goes from realism to dark, shadowy nightmare scenes at the drop of a hat and sometimes in the same panel. The standout panel is Ewins’ depiction of a possessed youth though: you’ll never forget that demon’s ugly mug. The scripts also change with the artists – Ewins gets Judge Death, Roach the child abuse storyline – and they blend well.

The only real downside is that Cass, as befits a psychic, ends up becoming more introspective and emotionally vulnerable (though she almost always remains a strong, engaging lead). There is a slight sense that this is not just because she’s a psychic and other Judges aren’t, but because Cass is a female lead and Dredd isn’t. However, this does get balanced out by the presence in earlier strips – she resigned in a Dredd story between Andersons – of Chief Judge Hilda McGruder, a hard-assed Judge’s Judge and foil for Cass.

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August: Stan Lee’s How to Draw Comics by Stan Lee

Stan Lee’s writings on comics–and indeed, his early comics–have the kind of enthusiasm about making comics that I did when I was nine and first decided to learn how to do it. Since then, my enthusiasm has been tempered by the frustration and effort involved trying to understand the production and theory in greater depth.

Books like this are a shot in the arm!

It starts with a little history of the field–as one might expect, Stan’s own experience is recalled in more detail. I’m not weeping over the brevity of the section on the Nineties, though.

Chapters two, three and four talk about drawing, specifically materials and anatomy. Really, this is too large a part of the process to rely on this book alone unless the art part is not going to be on your plate–but, fortunately, there’s a list of recommended reading included, and I can vouch for the ten of the fourteen on the list that I own. Books, I haz them.

Chapter five and six have some of the great rarer stuff. Five talks about design choices, as they apply to character acting and panel action; six gets into character naming and costumes. Anecdotes!

Chapter seven is dear to my heart. Environments, or backgrounds as they are often dismissively called, are discussed, yes, but there’s more! The book discusses how to use Google’s SketchUp to help with perspective for objects like houses–and in some detail. So, for you who are desperately terrified of complex perspective, this one’s for you. (I don’t blame you.)

Chapter eight is worth the price of the book alone.

Why? Because it deals with one of the most difficult and technical parts of comics–and the part of the mix that makes comics what they are.

Layouts, people! Stan discusses eye path, cinematic continuity, camera angles, clarity… and then there’s the true chewy gold centre for aspiring comic makers.

Mistakes. Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff. Jezreel Morales produces a four-page layout of an action scene with specific problems, which Stan then discusses–not only what’s gone awry, but why. It includes my pet peeve, rampant abuse of panel break-out!

Another useful element is a sample 3-age breakdown/layout by Wilson Tortosa, which is designed to be worked up to completion or expanded upon in new ways by a developing artist. How cool is that?

Developing artists may enjoy chapter nine especially. It discusses pencilling styles, and showcases some very different, but quite effective, pencillers and discusses the development of style over time–Al Rio starting out as a clone of J. Scott Campbell? Having only become familiar with Rio fairly recently, it’s heartening to see how much a style can grow. But then, I can barely picture the stark differences between early Deodato and modern Deodato, and I own a good chunk of his Wonder Woman run. Does not compute!

Speaking of Deodato, there’s some process pages where the book demonstrates how to use photoreference properly–that is, as to support your carefully-considered layout design, not as a replacement for purveyors of pornface. Derivative pornface at that.

Chapters ten, eleven, and twelve deal with inking, lettering, and colouring, and covers are discussed in good detail. The final chapter is concerned with portfolios and getting work in the industry. The indexes include, as mentioned, the reading list, some schools offering courses in comics (all American), and even places to find art supplies.

As a primer on the many and varied aspects of production, I haven’t found a better one. Some of the content is similar to How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way, but unlike that book, this has quite a breadth of artists in it and has a broader focus.

It’s not without problems–there’s a section on representing ethnicities that’s not really worth listening to. This is a standard, pervasive problem with almost every drawing book I ever encountered–everybody’s got that European body and face. Blah. Hunt ye down Joumana Medlej’s resources for ethnotypes instead. Also, there’s some of the usual stuff about female characters needing to remain sensual without heavy emphasis on muscle… of course, the last full illustration in the book is Frank Cho’s physically powerful Red Sonja with a big axe on her shoulder, so take that as you will. There’s a few issues like that, but nothing that makes me want to kill-kill-never-stop.

It’s a big field, and Stan’s experience is put to good use discussing not just the practises but also the reasoning behind them. And call me a keener, but I’d rather have a slab of a book that gives a more complete picture than a dozen skinny ones–and this book isn’t even a slab. For real facility, you will need to supplement this book with others in the field in question. But the reading list has some excellent material, and I do encourage checking out some of the titles listed.

Seriously, this is at the top of my list on technical grounds alone, but it’s also served by Stan himself–you know he loves comics, and that comes through. That kind of spirit is a tonic for me when I’m banging my head against the latest production problem, and makes me remember why I love comics in the first place.
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July: Bad Machinery, by John Allison

John Allison’s Bad Machinery follows on the heels of his brilliant Scary Go Round, which ran for seven years of (largely) understated English surrealism and fantasy. Bad Machinery stays in the same universe (and in the West Yorkshire city of Tackleford), with a few beloved characters still around, but shifts its focus down a
generation to the twelve-year-old set. The girls (bright Shauna, impulsive Charlotte and troublemaker Mildred) and the boys (shy Jack, ambitious Linton and good-hearted Sonny) engage in a friendly rivalry to solve mysteries and right wrongs. Obligingly, Tackleford is full of that sort of thing – spirits, monsters, trolls and magic pencils abound.

Moving from the teens and twenty-somethings of Scary Go Round to the children of Bad Machinery lets Allison give his natural gift for dialogue full rein. His cast of smart, guileless kids all have distinctive voices and a sharp phrasing which was SGR’s hallmark. Awkward relationships are as engaging as monster hunting when rendered in in his colourful, expressive style.
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June: Neil Young’s Greendale by Joshua Dysart and Cliff Chiang

Neil Young’s Greendale is a graphic novel adaptation of the album of the same name by — you guessed it — Neil Young. If you’re a Neil Young fan and you’re reading this website, odds are you’ve already read this book. But if you’re not, it’s important to note that this graphic novel requires absolutely no knowledge of that album or of Neil Young in general. It only requires that you be a person who’s interested in the coming-of-age tale of a teenage girl tapping into previously-unknown power, brought to stunning life by Cliff Chiang’s art.

With this book, writer Joshua Dysart takes the basic ideas of Greendale, a concept album about the Iraq War, environmentalism, and a small California town’s reaction to it all, and turns it into a beautiful story about one 17-year-old girl, Sun Green, whose female family members have always held some amount of sway over the forces of nature. Sun is a girl who is deeply concerned about the world around her, an avowed pacifist and environmentalist who doesn’t understand, in 2003, why the whole planet seems to be going to hell. Meanwhile, things are spinning out of control within the small, close-knit circle of her family, and a mysterious devil presence is set on making them even worse. It’s up to Sun to realize exactly what kind of power she has and use it to combat those evils, both personal and global.

The book has a strong narrative, despite how meandering the original music is, and the people of Greendale, California all feel deeply real. The focus on matrilineal power is especially awesome, as Sun draws strength from her female ancestors, all of whom have distinct personalities. But the biggest highlight of the book is probably Chiang’s art, which is clean, soft, expressive, and simply gorgeous. The most mundane elements of the book shine under his pencils, and the fantastical elements positively sparkle. Even if this doesn’t sound like the book for you, I recommend flipping through it in a bookstore or a library just to check out the art.

But mostly I recommend this book to anyone who, like me, found themselves in high school in the harsh, confusing days of the early 2000s and wished they, like Sun Green, had the power to change the world.

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May: Spider-Girl, by Paul Tobin, Clayton Henry, et al.

I don’t read Marvel. No particular reason, I’ve just always been a DC girl, and the thought of diving into another shared universe is a bit daunting. But I’m a sucker for plucky teen heroines, and after picking up the first issue of Spider-Girl on a friend’s recommendation, I was hooked.

Luckily, writer Paul Tobin makes it easier for newbies to jump on board. He skims over the details of the universe and the character’s backstory in a way that’s informative, not confusing, and more importantly, he wastes no time in making the reader care about Anya and her world. The first issue presented such a likable, engaging picture of our heroine, and sold me so well on her interpersonal relations, that when she suffered a major personal tragedy in the second issue, I cried all over the place.

Which is not to say that the series is a downer. On the contrary, Anya is a relatively upbeat, feisty kind of heroine, and the pages are crammed with Spider-banter. Tobin manages to hit an impressive balance between serious and often tragic themes and a genuinely fun read.

Oh, and hey, did I mention that Anya is Latina? And that she has several strong relationships with other women, including Sue Storm? Because those things are both awesome.

As for the art – well, it’s a mixed bag. Regular penciller Clayton Henry has a clean, sleek style that works well with Tobin’s writing, but the series has been plagued by fill-ins – some slapdash, some just not a good fit for the script. I’m not sure if this is cause or effect, but the series has unfortunately been cancelled and there are only two more issues left before it’s gone.

On the plus side, I’m definitely going to be picking up some of Anya’s back issues, and following her further adventures wherever they happen to take her. You’ll make a true believer of me yet, Marvel!

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November: Doctor Who: Oblivion, by Scott Gray and Martin Geraghty, Lee Sullivan, John Ross, Robin Smith & Adrian Salmon

The Eighth Doctor and Izzy Sinclair are back in a series of exciting adventures with intestinal jungles, Frida Kahlo, the Daleks… Wait, Izzy who? Well, herein lies a tale:

Doctor Who Magazine, the official, er, magazine, has been running Who strips since it was Doctor Who Weekly in 1979. When Paul McGann became the Doctor and there was no TV series or (at the start) book series using him, the Magazine leapt at the chance to have their ‘own’ Doctor to do things with. This is the third of four weighty graphic novels detailing his strip adventures, and the third with comic companion Izzy Sinclair, a teenaged sci-fi geek whose first response to the Tardis was disappointment that it wasn’t techy enough.

It’s also the first – ever! – run of DWM strips in colour, and the first strip of Oblivion is all about playing with that, as the Tardis is eaten by a huge outer-space snake robot who has a fleet of ships and feral, utterly implausible alien packs running around in its intestinal jungle. Scott Gray is a writer looking back to the 60s Who-related strips, the mad ones with Quarks wielding armies of robot maids and Giant Wasps and the Doctor meeting Father Christmas, as well as Silver Age Marvels. Like the best of such writers, he takes the visual splendour and madcap invention of those days and supports them with clever plotting, humour, and a lot of heart and emotion. Emotion, in fact, will play a large part: the seemingly harmless adventures and encounter with action-star fish-girl Destrii take a sharp, nasty turn near the end, and Izzy is left in a very dark place that the Doctor may not be able to solve. Not that this will stop him…

“I’m not scared of monsters. They’re scared of me.”

While two trades come before this, Oblivion is very new reader friendly: an earlier character, Fey Truscott-Sade, may be the main point of confusion but all her details are explained in-strip (WW2 British spy, bonded with an alien superbeing) and is also the better collection: there’s one story running through the whole thing, overseen by one writer, with a firm and powerful ending. It also comes with an array of behind-the-scenes data on the writing and a nine-page strip where the Master battles Victorian literary supervillains in the Land of Fiction (no, really). It’s also got the strongest showing for female characters: Izzy and Fey both get a lot of meaty scenes and are distinct characters, and the supporting cast also includes historical artist Frida Kahlo in an important role.

And if you want more, Eccleston/Tennant era showrunner Russell T Davies was such a big fan of the Gray strips that he not only sent in fan-mail (one of them gets quoted in the backmatter), they were offered the chance to do the canonical regeneration into the Ninth Doctor, as detailed in the fourth trade. That’s right, this stuff is canon: so now you have to buy it, right?
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October: Octopus Pie, by Meredith Gran

The genius of Octopus Pie is Meredith Gran’s ability to lend humour to practically every panel and line of dialogue. Like Achewood or Scary Go Round, the strips avoid building to conventional punchlines, instead relying on a natural rhythm that makes this one of the most enjoyable webcomics around.

The comic centres on the life of Everest Ning, Eve to her friends: her room-mate Hanna, her job, her Brooklyn neighbourhood, her love life. Gran’s characters are carefully crafted and evoked in a way that makes them instantly seem familiar. It helps that her art is a clean, confident grayscale, walking a fine line between joyful cartoonishness and realism, veering one way or the other as the situation demands (her ability to draw a broad range of body types is particularly welcome).

The storylines are a blend of relationship drama, situational comedy and out-and-out surrealism, with the drama never totally devoid of humour and the comedy always rooted in emotional truth. A series in which Eve’s identity crisis is expressed through a Laser Tag battle between her Asian nerd friends and Hanna’s stoner pals is a particularly brilliant example of the storytelling skills on display. Everything about the strip feels modern and contemporary without being faddish or pop-culture-obsessed.

Octopus Pie has been running for over three years, giving it a healthy but not daunting backlog of material all still available free online (a print anthology has also recently come out). Now that it’s returned to a thrice-weekly update schedule, it’s time to put it on your reading lists.

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