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The comics industry cameos of Peter Bagge’s ‘Sweatshop’

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You’ll be forgiven if you missed Sweatshop the first time around. Sure, it was created, written and mostly drawn by Peter Bagge, and yes, it was published by DC Comics, but not for long. It lasted just six issues in 2003 and, according to Bagge’s afterword to the new collection (published not by DC, but Fantagraphics), then-DC President Paul Levitz decided to pull the plug around the time the second issue shipped.

The unlikely pairing of DC with talent like Bagge was apparently an outgrowth of editor Joey Cavalieri’s success with the hardcover Bizarro Comics anthology, which teamed “alternative” comics creators with DC regulars. Bagge, who had written DC’s poorly received nine-issue Yeah!, met with Cavalieri and decided on a pretty perfect premise for a comedic comic book. (Yeah!, by the way, was drawn by Gilbert Hernandez and was also collected by Fantagraphics rather than DC.)

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Lucy Knisley travels to the land of old age in ‘Displacement’

DisplacementEach of Lucy Knisley’s memoirs has been stronger than the last, and Displacement continues that rising arc. While An Age of License, her story of a trip through Europe, was sort of a free-range travelogue, Displacement, her account of a cruise she took with her elderly grandparents, is more introspective and self-contained.

I can’t claim this is an original insight; Knisley lays it all out on one page of Displacement, where she recalls the trip that became An Age of License. “That trip was about independence, sex, youth, and adventure,” she muses. “This trip is about patience, care, mortality, respect, sympathy, and love.”

Indeed, where An Age of License is filled with drawings of interesting places and fabulous food, Displacement focuses tightly on Knisley and her grandparents. Traveling on a cruise ship is all about the journey, not the destination; Knisley only gets off the ship for two short excursions, and even then, she is less interested in local color than the people around her. While she started every chapter of An Age of License with a drawing of her journey to the next destination, she starts each chapter of Displacement with an image of the empty ocean, with the horizon getting higher with each day of the trip.

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So long, She-Hulk, see you next volume

1000049This week Marvel released the final issue of Charles Soule and Javier Pulido’s She-Hulk, which fell into the publisher’s post-Hawkeye rubric for solo titles starring second-tier characters. That is, it’s one of those series that, while still a superhero book, leaned hard in the opposite direction, eschewing genre formula for a more singular vision, while having a sense of humor, a distinct style and, of course, a focus on what the character does when not in costume.

She-Hulk, like all the other characters in similar comics, still saved people and fought crime, but as for saving the world? That’s the stuff for team books and big, line-wide crossovers (which the publisher is producing at a faster rate, one benefit being that the Marvel Universe had more room for Hawkeyes, She-Hulks, Black Widows and Iron Fists). For She-Hulk, this was easily accomplished, as she just so happened to be one the Marvel superheroes whose day job is exciting; as omnipresent as superhero TV shows and movies may seem these days, they’re still dwarfed by the gigantic body of work starring lawyers.

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‘Swampmen’ explores the fertile ground of an unlikely subgenre

swamp men coverIt was probably circumstance as much as anything else that lead to the swamp monster subgenre of horror comics becoming so important the history of mainstream North American comic books.

After all, Swamp Thing just happened to be the title for which Len Wein hired young British writer Alan Moore, leading to a run whose importance and influence is difficult to overstate. And Man-Thing, the Marvel character that shared so much in common with Swamp Thing, just so happened to be one of the first vehicles for writer Steve Gerber, introducing that weird and wild talent to mainstream comics audiences.

It’s therefore not that surprising that TwoMorrows Publishing found it worth devoting an entire 200-page book to the swamp monster subgenre, from its Golden Age origins to its late-’80s climax, the result being editors Jon B. Cooke and George Khoury’s Swampmen: Muck-Monsters and Their Makers.

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Reviews | DeForge enchants and Toriyama is at his best

first year healthyFirst Year Healthy (Drawn and Quarterly): Technically not comics, this illustrated prose picture book for adults is still of great interest to us because of its author/illustrator, Michael DeForge, and its publisher, Drawn and Quarterly.

It’s also of interest because of its compelling quality.

In matter-of-fact first-person narration, DeForge tells the story of a young woman who just got out of the hospital, having suffered some traumatic event or disease that alienated her from many of those around her. She chronicles her relationship with a man, to whom she refer only as “a Turk.”

After she moves in with him, he takes a job out of town doing something for a vaguely criminal associate and, one day, never returns, leaving our narrator to deal with the people in his life: the landlady with whom he fathered a child while exchanging sex for rent, that child and, eventually, the criminal associate. There’s also a magical cat creature, which plays a small but ultimately vital role in the short story.

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‘The Multiversity: Guidebook’ is the most DC comic ever

guidebook coverAt first glance, The Multiversity: Guidebook #1 — this month’s chapter of Grant Morrison’s grand epic exploring DC Comics’ Multiverse — looks like a somewhat-skippable book, supplemental material of the sort that the publisher used to release under the title Secret Files & Origins.

Everything seems to bear that out, from the content advertised on the cover (like the already well-traveled map of the Multiverse) to the artists involved (Marcus To and Paulo Siqueira are good, but not of the same superstar status as previous Multiversity artists) to the particular Earths the cover boys come from (the Batman on the left is from Morrison’s new version of the world of The Atomic Knights; the Batman on the right is an off-model drawing of the character from an Earth introduced in Morrison’s brief Action Comics run).

Second and third glances confirm that initial assessment of this book’s importance. On flip-through, you’ll note that about half of its 70 pages are devoted to illustrated prose in an airy, space-filling format, defining each of the 52 Earths and identifying a few of the key players.

But once you start reading the thing? Well, on a purely conceptual level, as a piece of comics writing and a piece of comics writing about comics, it’s probably the most ambitious, important and fascinating chapter of The Multiversity to date. And that’s in addition to being an extremely timely reminder of how to “read” DC’s continuity-realigning storyines and just what, exactly, it is that makes DC Comics and the DC Universe so special in the first place.

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Robot Reviews | ‘March,’ Book Two

march_book_two_72dpi_lgThe second volume of Rep. John Lewis’ autobiographical trilogy March is darker than the first one, both literally — artist Nate Powell fills many panels with almost unbroken blackness, as he depicts smoke, night and noxious fumes — and figuratively, as it shows human cruelty at its worst. Even in its lighter moments, Book Two shows the flaws as well as the triumphs of the Civil Rights movement. As this era recedes from living memory to history books, it’s in danger of dwindling to a series of inspirational images and iconic figures. Book Two of March is a bracing antidote to that.

March‘s first volume focused on Lewis’ youth and his involvement with the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins of 1959-1960, his first experience with nonviolent social action. In Nashville, the protestors were mostly students, their leaders were mostly religious, and they took the principle of nonviolence seriously. The refusal to answer violence with violence, whether verbal or physical, was integral to their actions. While there are violent moments in Book One, the story doesn’t dwell on them.

In Book Two, on the other hand, Lewis jumps right in with an attempted murder: The manager of a diner not only refuses to serve Lewis and a colleague, he sends his staff away, turns off the lights, turns on a fumigator spraying insecticide gas, and locks the door. The opposition has moved from harassment to deadly force, and while Lewis was rescued by firefighters (who must have been called by someone), it’s clear from the start that the stakes have been raised.

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Return of the Jedi to Marvel: ‘Star Wars’ #1

star wars #1 coverThe first page of Marvel’s Star Wars #1 is essentially a splash-page version of a screen cap, featuring the blue “A long time ago …” opening text. And they’re not kidding. The first Star Wars film opened 38 years ago, in 1977, which is when Marvel initially published licensed Star Wars comics. The company kept a monthly series going for a decade before canceling it. The racks were Star Wars-less for just four years before Dark Horse picked up the license, beginning a fruitful 23-year relationship that produced some pretty great comics — in fact, almost all of the good Star Wars comics (that aren’t the product of Jeffrey Brown, anyway).

And now, thanks to various corporate acquisitions, “The Greatest Space Fantasy of All!” is back in the hands of Marvel, which used to refer to it as such in the ’70s (and its principal heroes as “The Star Warriors”).

So how is the much-hyped, $4.99, 30-page comic with a variant cover for every star in the sky? Not bad. Not bad at all.

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A Month of Wednesdays | ‘Batmanga’, ‘Change-Bots’ and ‘Turtles in Time’

batmangaBatman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Vol. 1 (DC Comics): It was so long ago at this point that it might as well have been the 1950s, as fast as Internet time moves, but I seem to recall Chip Kidd and company’s 2008 book Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan getting some static for its treatment of Jiro Kuwata’s Batman manga. Kuwata’s contribution was by far the most fascinating aspect of the book — and took up the bulk of the page count — but many thought he didn’t get the credit he deserved (his name didn’t appear on the cover alongside Kidd’s and those of two others), while others felt weird about comics work being presented alongside photos of goofy Batman toys, as if it were just one more example of collectible kitsch.

Kuwata’s contributions certainly proved to be the most influential element of the book, however, inspiring an almost beat-for-beat adaptation in the Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon and inspiring writer Grant Morrison’s scripts for his critically-acclaimed Batman, Inc series. Now DC is giving Kuwata’s Bat-Manga its due, packaged in a distraction-free all-manga format.

They’ve been serializing the comics, created in 1966 and ’67 during the height of “Batmania,” digitally, and are following up with hard-copy collections, the first of which is this hefty, 360-page brick.

Unlike Kia Asamiya’s 2003 Batman: Child of Dreams, in which that eminent manga artist told a regular American Batman story in his style, Kuwata’s Batman feature is a highly-strange, almost heady parallel take on Batman. The most basic elements of the story are there — millionaire Bruce Wayne and his young ward become Batman and Robin to fight crime in Gotham City, using the Batmobile, batarangs and other gadgets — but everything around the Dynamic Duo seems somewhat alien.

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Campfire girls: ‘Lumberjanes’ #9 is a great jumping-on point

Lumberjanes 9

Chynna Clugston Flores

If you read about comic books on the Internet, and I have reason to believe you do, then chances are you’ve seen a lot this year about Lumberjanes.

And there’s good reason for that. First, the monthly series from BOOM! Studios is the sort of book many talkers-about-comic have been saying we need more of forever: It’s full of strong female protagonists, and it’s the work of strong female creators. (It’s a comic book about a group of awesome ladies, by awesome ladies!)

Second, and more importantly, it’s really, really good. It’s the story of five teenage best friends who occupy the Roanoke cabin of their Girl Scouts-like summer camping organization — April, Jo, Mal, Molly and Ripley — and their discovery of, and battles, against all kinds of weirdness in the woods around them. In the first, eight-issue arc they became involved in a contest between Greek gods, fighting three-eyed woodland creatures, yetis, dinosaurs and giant lightning bugs in the process. All that while earning merit badges.

Why do I bring this up? Well because if you’ve been reading about Lumberjanes and haven’t yet sampled it, this week’s issue is a pretty great jumping-on point.
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Robot Reviews | ‘Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?’

Can't We Talk About Something More PleasantCan’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
By Roz Chast

In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Roz Chast has produced an amazingly honest and clear-eyed memoir of her relationship with her parents in their declining years. It’s both a universal story of something many of us will go through and a very particular account of a single family of quirky individuals.

Chast had an unusual upbringing: She was an only child (a sister died at birth 14 years before she was born), and her parents had her late in life, so she always felt like a bit of an interloper. Her mother had a domineering personality and a sharp temper — she described her own outbursts as “A blast from Chast.” Her father was quieter, easier to get along with, but also plagued by anxieties and phobias, which led him to rely completely on her mother. They were, as Chast describes them, “a tight little unit,” and they seemed to believe that if they carefully avoided the subject of future unpleasantness, nothing would change. She depicts this perfectly in a single panel in which the hooded figure of Death roars “What’s THIS??? The Chasts are talking about me! Why, I’ll show THEM!!!”

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‘Superman Unchained,’ now bound

superman unchainedReaders and, especially, retailers may have plenty of reasons to be annoyed by Superman Unchained, the now-complete series available this week in a fancy-schmancy 350-page, slightly oversized hardcover “Deluxe Edition.”

DC Comics announced the awkwardly titled series — please note, there are no literal or metaphorical chains either going on or coming off in the story — as an ongoing, promoted with seemingly countless variant covers (more on these later). In theory, it sounded like a can’t-miss comic, featuring as it did the work of Scott Snyder, one of (if not the) most popular writers in the direct market and Jim Lee, one of (if not the) most popular artists in the direct market, working on DC’s flagship (and second-most popular) character.

In reality, the book turned out to just an nine-issue miniseries, rather important information a retailer would have taken into consideration when ordering. Whether or not it was always intended to be a miniseries, I don’t know; it reads as a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, and it fits into the New 52 continuity, but loosely enough that one need not have any idea what’s going on in any other book to follow it easily (Snyder really pulled off some great line-straddling here, as this reads equally well as part of the New 52 and as a standalone book for a new or lapsed Superman fan). The plan might have originally been for it to be ongoing, until the reality of a Lee drawing a monthly series set in.

Even at just nine issues, Superman Unchained was plagued with delays that made reading it serially something of a chump’s game. It took 15 months to publish those nine issues. That averages out to a bimonthly-ish schedule, but the delays were random and erratic: Issues 4 and 5 shipped in consecutive months, for example, and then there was a two-month delay before Issue 6, and a three-month delay before Issue 7. If there’s a more perfect argument for waiting for the trade than Superman Unchained, I’ve yet to hear it (you even get all 58 covers in this collection, some process stuff and no ads, and at $29.99 it’s cheaper than the buying all nine single issues at $3.99).

So, yes, if you’re in the business of trying to sell comics to people, you may have some ill will toward this book. And if you tried reading it “monthly,” you may also not feel great about it. I can’t defend DC’s production or marketing of the book, but I would argue in favor of forgiving Superman Unchained. Because the thing is, it’s actually a pretty great Superman story.
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A Month of Wednesdays | From Archie to zombies, Superman to sea creatures

archieArchie: The Married Life Book Six (Archie Comics): This is a phone book-sized collection of the final seven issues of Life With Archie, the series set in a possible future where Archie is married to Betty … and Veronica, in two alternate timelines. The narrative jumps between those parallel realities in a way that can be downright confusing when read in such a huge chunk as the collections offer.

While the stories feature the same fairly sprawling cast — and the character designs and are style are, as usual, in perfect harmony no matter whose names are in the credits — there’s more differences between the two timelines than just which girl Archie settled down with. In one timeline, Jughead is dating Ethel; in the other he’s having a baby with Midge. Likewise, Reggie is either a newspaper reporter or a mechanic with a reality show, and Moose is either Riverdale’s mayor or Riverdale High School’s janitor. And so on.

There are a few things both universes share, however, like Kevin Keller having been elected to the U.S. Senate, campaigning on gun control, an issue driven home by a mass shooting in the nearby Southport Mall. And, of course, in the final two issues, the “Death of Archie” and the epilogue that follows, the story is carefully, delicately crafted so that every line and every panel can be read so they’re the conclusions of both storylines, despite all the differences between the two.

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Branding shmanding, ‘Teen Titans: Earth One’ is pretty good

TEEN TITANS EARTH ONEThe cover of Teen Titans: Earth One Volume One, as it’s referred to on its title page, bears the all-caps blurb, “THE NEXT CHAPTER IN THE #1 NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLING EARTH ONE SERIES.”

What exactly is “the Earth One series”? I’m a little confused. So too is its publisher.

The line of original graphic novels launched in 2010 with J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis’ Superman: Earth One. The premise seemed to be the reintroduction of the character in a modern setting for a new audience. (Not unlike Marvel’s millennial Ultimate imprint then, but in a more bookstore/library-friendly format.)

That was followed with a sequel and Batman: Earth One, by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. Now the Teen Titans get a turn with this book by Jeff Lemire, Terry and Rachel Dodson and Cam Smith. Despite the blurb, the graphic novels aren’t connected in any way other than design, format and, perhaps, intended audience.

The “Earth One” designation remains particularly perplexing, given the baggage the phrase is freighted with, its ever-changing meaning and the fact that these books are presumably targeted at readers who don’t know or care about the oft-rebooted DC Multiverse’s various parallel-Earth settings.
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The living dead wear dresses in ‘Magical Girl Apocalypse’

magical girl coverThe current cultural interest in zombies seems to be, like the creatures themselves, deathless. Rather than abating, the trend simply finds new ways and places to appear, whether that’s Archie Comics’ entry into horror, a new take on DC’s old war titles, or manga-ka Kentaro Sato’s bizarre Magical Girl Apocalypse.

A recent import from Seven Seas that gives the zombie-apocalypse scenario the unusual agent of a magical school girl, the series is perhaps well-timed, given the resurgence of interest in Sailor Moon, most Americans’ first and strongest introduction to the Japanese trope, that has accompanied her new television show.

Sato’s comic is an odd one in how familiar it is … save for that one big innovation. It’s not even the first manga I’ve read about a zombie apocalypse that starts at a Japanese high school; Daisuke Sato and Shouji Sato’s superior Highschool of the Dead has a similar premise, and much of this first volume features scenes and character types almost identical to those in HOTD‘s first volume.

That isn’t to say it’s a retread, however; it differs in several significant ways — it’s far gorier, it’s less interested in fan service (and some of what’s there seems almost to be a parody of the ludicrously endowed characters that appear in some manga, including HOTD), it’s less interested in characterization (the cast expanding only to shrink almost immediately in a series of gory deaths) and, of course, there’s that magical girl.

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