Trade Post: Frank, Midnighter, Constantine, Spirit & Batman/TMNT

trade-pileAnother week has gone by and I’ve knocked out another pile of comics, most of which came from my local library system. As you can see, we’ve got a mix of amazing indie artists, classic comic visionaries, crossovers and newer books. Hit the jump to see what I had to say on this batch! Continue reading Trade Post: Frank, Midnighter, Constantine, Spirit & Batman/TMNT

The Trade Post: A Big Ol’ Pile Of Library Books

comic pileLongtime readers might remember a time when I was reading so many books a week that I would simply take pictures of them in a stack and do a quick hit kind of report on them. Well, I’m not knocking down nearly as many books these days, but I did read through a good number from the library and figured I’d return to that form for this post. Let’s hit it! Continue reading The Trade Post: A Big Ol’ Pile Of Library Books

Old School Trade Post: Uncle Scrooge Only A Poor Old Man & Adventures Of Tintin The Secret Of The Unicorn

uncle scrooge only a poor old man Uncle Scrooge: Only A Poor Old Man (Fantagraphics)
Written & drawn by Carl Barks

Right off the bat, I want to say that I talked about both of these books a few weeks back on the 42nd episode of my dad podcast, The Pop Poppa Nap Cast. I’m sure I’ll get to a few new points that I didn’t hit on there, but if you listened to that episode this post might feel a bit redundant.

Anyway, one of the greatest things about working at Wizard was meeting so many people who were so passionate about so many different kinds of comics. Some guys were Marvel scholars, others knew everything about indie books and a few others were more fans of old school material like Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge comics. These are Disney comics I’d been hearing about for years, so when I had a little extra cash last year I figured I’d finally dip my toe into that coin-filled pond and check out Fantagraphics’ Uncle Scrooge: Only A Poor Old Man which happened to collect Barks’ first Uncle Scrooge-starring comics (before that he was more of a supporting character in Barks’ Donald Duck comics).

Like a lot of people my age, I’m mostly familiar with Uncle Scrooge thanks to Mickey’s Christmas Carol and Duck Tails. While the former didn’t paint a very flattering portrait of the character, the latter made him out to be a go-getting adventurer with a mile-long greedy streak. It’s the latter version that comes front and center in this book. Every story revolves around the almighty dollar (or coin, in many cases) with Scrooge, Donald, Huey, Dewey and Louie going to great lengths to keep his money safe. The stories are presented in Barks’ iconic style which is perfectly cartoony, but also detailed and fun at times you might not expect it. He seemed to enjoy drawing Duckburg as much as Atlantis, so there’s a wide breadth of locations and characters in this collection to enjoy.

“Great lengths” is actually a pretty solid descriptor of this book. I was surprised to find out how long many of the main stories were in this book. I guess that’s just how comics were set up back then, but I often found myself flipping to the end of the story to try and figure out how many more pages I had to go. Personally, I think a few of these longer stories could have been cut down and would have felt a lot more streamlined and focused. As it is, some feel a bit meandering at times. This was compounded by the fact that there are one page gag strips included that I absolutely loved. These were quick, concise and often hilarious.

Even though some of the strips felt a little slow, I would still recommend checking out some of these Carl Barks strips. There’s such a great sense of wonder and exploration here that doesn’t get swallowed up by the greed also present in the series. In fact, Scrooge’s obsession with money might kick off many of the adventures, but it also leads to all kinds of calamity. I don’t want to read too much into these stories, but you can easily pull lessons from here that are good for both adults and kids. I tried reading this book with my kid and she wasn’t super-interested just yet, but I’ll try again later on down the line.

tintin-secret-of-the-unicorn-little-brown-cover-1 The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn (Little, Brown)
Written & drawn by Herge

Herge’s Tintin is another one of those books that I’ve heard about for years but never actually read. At last year’s New York Comic Con I was flipping through a box of $5 trades, saw a bunch of Tintin books and decided to try The Secret Of The Unicorn. At the time I didn’t realize that this was actually the book that the recent Tintin movie was based on. I actually watched the movie, but remembered next to nothing about it aside from the opening scene which is the same way this book opens. From there, though, it was like experiencing a story for the first time.

In this book, kid reporter Tintin gets wrapped up in a mystery directly related to his pal Captain Haddock’s family. The adventure includes shady antique dealers, pickpockets, cops, robbers, pirates, treasure and even a big, old mansion. The simple, comic strip-esque art style lulled me a bit to the point where I was shocked when a guy got shot in the back. I also didn’t expect for the B storyline to tie back into the A one so concisely because I was expecting something more aimed at kids. This was probably the best way to read it because it helped enhance the surprises, twists and turns.

As it turns out, this book leads directly into Red Rackham’s Treasure which I don’t have, but do want to get my hands on. I enjoyed this story so much, I’m actually thinking of picking it up in one of those three-in-one collections so I can keep going.

I want to say one more thing about both of these books, they are absolutely packed with bonus material. Scrooge features an intro by none other than George Lucas and is followed by a series of essays written by Duck Comic scholars and fans that not only give details about Barks and what he was going through at the time, but also explores some of the themes therein. In the Little, Brown versions of the Tintin stories, they’re aimed at kids and include a bunch of material in the back that add historical context and also show off comparisons between Herge’s finished art and the extensive reference material he collected while working on Tintin. I love when trades like this add extra material to flesh out the experience, especially when you’re dealing with older material that might offer a bit more context.

Trade Post: American Born Chinese & Ghost World

american born chinese American Born Chinese (First Second)
Written & drawn by Gene Luen Yang

Several years ago I was talking to a friend of mine from high school who is now an English teacher. She asked me if I had any suggestions for comics, trades or graphic novels that might be useful examples of the form for her AP students to read. I want to say she’d already read Watchmen at this point, so I went with several suggestions of books that I had either read myself or heard were good and passed whatever hard copies I had along to her for her perusal.

Well, today I got a box from her in the mail with all those books. I remembered passing her Dan Clowes’ Ghost World, Mo Willems’ travelog You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons and a pair of Marjane Satrapi books — Embroideries and Chicken With Plums — but had no recollection of giving her Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. This surprised me because it’s a book that I’ve been hearing about since it came out in 2006, especially from my pals at Wizard who were for more tapped in to the indie comic and graphic novel scene like Sean T. Collins and Kiel Phegley.

Anyway, getting this box today was kind of like comic Christmas. I felt like reading something I was excited about and ABC fit the bill. I’m going to say right now that I only knew that people liked this book and understood that it had something to do with trying to fit in as a kid of Chinese lineage in America. That’s it. So I was pleasantly surprised by everything in this book. If you’ve heard good things and want to check it out, I recommend stopping here and getting your hands on a copy because it was a delight having this tale unfold before me.

If you’re still here, I’ll explain a bit more. The book features three different stories. One is of a monkey king who flirts with the idea of becoming a man, another stars a wildly racist version of a Chinese person visiting and embarrassing a high school student and the third follows Jin Wang as he does his best to navigate a school that’s not overly friendly to him while dealing with all the feelings and emotions any kid that age finds themselves surrounded by. All three stories are really enjoyable, but it’s tough to talk about how good they get without getting into spoilers.

So, this paragraph is SPOILER TERRITORY. The beauty of this book is that it kept these three stories going along and each one was super entertaining. I wondered why I was reading all three in the same book, but it didn’t bother me much. Then — BAM — you find out how they’re related and it’s this great Usual Suspects like moment where the good thing you were reading just revealed to you that it’s great. What started out as three different stories turned into this much more impressive non-linear fable that left me a little slack jawed, I must say. That was a great experience and I hope repeated readings will only add to the experience.

I can easily say that all the hype around ABC is dead-on accurate. There are bits in this book that made me laugh, cringe, feel sad, remember the awkwardness of growing up and even thrill to some pretty spectacular action. For all that, it gets a gigantic thumbs up.

Ghost World Ghost World (Fantagraphics)
Written & drawn by Dan Clowes
Collects Eightball #11-18

I don’t remember when I first read Ghost World, but I feel like my reaction to this book has probably changed since then. I want to say we first crossed paths in college. That’s when I was really building up my trade collection by buying cheap lots of on ebay. I wound up with a wide variety of books to explore. I’m not sure if I saw the movie before reading its sequential inspiration or not, but kind of think that was the case.

Ghost World first appeared in Dan Clowes’ self-published comic Eightball which also birthed The Death Ray and Art School Confidential. The comic follows lifelong friends Enid and Rebecca as they wander around town, talk and create complicated backstories for the people they encounter. It’s nearly impossible for me to separate this comic from some of the indie movies I rented from Family Video back in the late 90s/early 00s because it has that kind of slice of life, slightly meandering tone that shines the spotlight on young people trying to figure out the world. 

The problem? These young people are assholes. Man, I feel ancient writing that sentence. But, reading this book kind of made me feel ancient anyway and not just because I wanted to shake Enid and tell her to get out of her own ass and actually do something, but also because Teenage Me probably did and said many of these same things. Let me amend that, I probably said the same things, I would have never called a personal ad guy and set him up for a fake date. That level of meanness has always bothered me and it makes me dislike Enid pretty strongly.

But I think that’s the point. I’m not very familiar with Clowes’ work, but from what I gather he enjoys presenting unlikable or hard-to-like characters and giving the reader an idea of what their lives are like. You definitely get that with Enid and Rebecca. This book doesn’t go deep into the hows and whys of their relationship or psyches, but you do get to form your own opinions of such things as they talk. And, as things progress throughout the story, you do come to realize that things are going to change for these women. Enid’s dad wants her to go to college, the mere idea of which winds up creating a rift between Enid and Rebecca, one that gets them both to reevaluate their relationship and what they’re doing with their lives.

At the end of the day, I don’t think I need to read Ghost World again. It’s not a bad book by any means. Clowes knows how to tell a story, expertly combining dialog, pacing and cartooning skills to get you into the story, but also keep you involved even when you might not like the people you’re reading about. After returning to this book, though, I’m left feeling like I did about some of those indie movies I mentioned: regardless of how I felt about the people, I respect the artistry involved, but I don’t think I need to revisit any time soon. Then again, Clowes is one of the most well respected cartoonists around so it might be worth keeping around for a while…

Trade Post: Weathercraft

WEATHERCRAFT (Fantagraphics)
Written & drawn by Jim Woodring

Thanks to a pretty fantastic sale on Thwipster last weekend and some surprisingly fast shipping, I found myself reading–or more likely experiencing–my very first Jim Woodring comic yesterday. I’ve heard a lot of Woodring from friends like Sean T. Collins (check out his review of the book, which I haven’t read or any other review yet because I don’t want it to color my experience just yet).

I’m not exactly sure how to explain Weathercraft. It’s technically a Frank comic, as it says on the comic, though the real star and main character of the book is Manhog, a bumbling force of nature who finds himself in all kinds of terrible, dangerous and sometimes heroic situations. While the artwork and the character of Manhog might seem kind of cartoony, Woodring takes the somewhat familiar scenes from Loony Tunes shorts and takes them a few steps further with some squirm-inducing scenes, that had me shifting in my seat.

The art is really the key to my enjoyment of this book–and I did quite enjoy it–and Woodring does not disappoint. I had seen samples of his artwork online and was impressed, but Weatercraft impressed from the very beginning. I’m talking about the image on the cover underneath the dust jacket and then on the inside front and back covers. Holy crap, this dude can draw. You can tell he takes a lot of time and care to put his panels together. The figures might remind you of familiar characters from childhood, but there’s a few dangerous elements of reality in there that you feel more than see. And hot damn can he draw monsters, which this book is chockablock full of. While not visually similar really, he reminds me of Kevin Huizenga (who I love, mostly) with the intense details and uninhibited, freeflowing transference of ideas from the brain to paper.

I don’t usually get this deep when reviewing books, but I kind of see Manhog as a metaphor for America, or at least Americans against the backdrop of international politics and travel. Manhog bumbles through his reality, seemingly through strange places he’s unfamiliar with, sometimes screwing things up for someone, sometimes helping someone, but never asking questions and always imposing his will on the people, things and monsters around him. He doesn’t come through unscathed (his tail!) but seems pretty okay with himself by the end of the book, though someone else had to come through and save his bacon. I have absolutely no idea what Woodring’s politics are or if this was something intended, but that’s what I got to thinking about while reading through this silent comic.

As I mentioned, I’ve never read a Woordring or a Frank comic, so this was a whole new world to me, yet I had no problem understanding what was going on–as far as I think I could have understood such a surreal and fantastical story–meaning it’s pretty good for new readers. I still have no idea what the deal with Frank or his weird pets are or even if Manhog is an established character, but, really, that’s not the point. Weathercraft feels like a day-in-the-life story. It’s a weird and wild one, but you don’t have to know anything going on, you just experience it. It actually reminded me of how I felt about stories in college: the details can be interesting, even if there’s not a typical arc or whatever. Don’t get me wrong, Weathercraft has an arc and a story and all that, but it’s probably not exactly what you’d think if you’re more used to traditional comics. Still, it’s a great piece of fiction to pick up and really experience, especially if you can get a good deal on it!

Strip Search: Hank Ketcham’s Complete Dennis The Menace Vol. 2 1953-1954

Welcome to a brand new feature here on UnitedMonkee: Strip Search. My first foray as a kid into sequential art was not the comic book, but the daily comics in the newspaper which we called “funnies” in my house. Perhaps it was that nickname that kept me firmly focused on only the comedy strips of the time and away from the more dramatic ones like Prince Valiant, Mary Worth and their ilk. My dad and I would trade the funnies back and forth in the mornings depending on who got to the breakfast table first. Our local paper, The Toledo Blade, had a special entertainment section called and colored Peach which we read every day for quite a while. The only problem was that The Blade didn’t really get too wild when it came to the strips they syndicated. You had your basics like Hagar The Horrible, Blondie, Garfield, Marmaduke, Dennis The Menace and Dilbert. It seemed like once Calvin And Hobbes went away, the paper stopped paying attention to new strips. Actually, I take that back, they added Zits which became a fast favorite, but after that? Well, honestly, I don’t even remember because my dad eventually started getting The Detroit Free Press, a paper with much better, more interesting strips like The Boondocks, Liberty Meadows and Get Fuzzy. Sure there was some redundancies, but we enjoyed reading both sets.

For the most part, I stopped reading the funnies when I went to college because the newspaper was no longer a part of my life and hasn’t really been since, aside from some trips home or visits from the in-laws who always buy a paper when they visit, they haven’t been a part of my life since. It wasn’t until the last year or so that I started getting interested in comic strips again, though not the ones being currently produced. With the huge increase of reprints from the long history of the medium and creators bestowing the virtues of those older creations it got me excited about exploring some of those strips. I’ll be honest, Dennis The Menace was not on that list. Sure, I liked the one-panel daily strip as a kid and even watched reruns of the 50s TV series on Nickelodeon as a kid as well as the mid-80s cartoon, but I kind of wrote the strip off as goofy kids stuff. What made me rethink that stance? A sale at a Borders in Jersey I happened to find myself in last weekend where I found Hank Ketcham’s Complete Dennis The Menace Volume 2: 1953-54 and Volume 4 from Fantagraphics for about $4 a piece! I’m a sucker for a good deal, especially when the books normally run $24.95, so I bit.

I was very pleasantly surprised with how entertained I was by the strips as I burned through this 653 page collection of every non-Sunday strip from Dennis’ third and fourth years in existence. If you’re not familiar, Dennis Mitchell is a five year old boy with a mother and father. He’s classically known for being precocious, overly honest as only children can be and what some people today would call spirited. Going in, I of course knew that his neighbor, the short-fused Mr. Wilson tended to be on the receiving end of Dennis menacement, but interestingly enough, he’s hardly in this collection. Neither are his friend Joey or his female nemesis Margaret who were prominent in the cartoon. Most of the strips revolve around Dennis’ boyishness getting on the nerves of his parents Henry and Alice with his ever-present canine companion Ruff along for the ride usually. Most of the gags revolve around Dennis’ ignorance of the adult world. He’s often misinterpreting sayings and metaphors his parents use to describe their neighbors and friends usually within earshot of those same people. He also worries his mother in the way that a boy of the time would: by getting into all kinds of trouble, occasionally coming home naked or bloody (not both mind you). I’d like to think that creator Hank Ketcham was attempting to poke fun at the seriousness of adult life and possibly the guards and niceties we hide behind which often sacrifice honesty and truth. I also found it interesting that I could relate my childhood more to a five decade old comic strip than kids today. Not to sound too much like an old man, I spent huge amounts of time running around the nearby park with neighborhood kids and being kids. I was never as mischievous as Dennis, but I’m sure most kids today are either kept inside for fear of abduction or would rather sit around and play video games. I hope I’m way off on that, but we’ll see.

I also want to talk about Ketcham’s art for a moment. The intro to this collection by comic strip historian R.C. Harvey goes on and on about Ketcham’s style, but the most important thing I read in there was that Ketcham liked to play with perspective and silhouettes to keep himself interested, but he also didn’t want the cartoon to draw too much attention away from the overall joke. As it is, these early strips have a looseness to them that does draw attention away from some of the details. You might think that with only so much space, an artist would take the easy way out and skimp on the backgrounds, but nearly every strip has a plenty of things to look at in the panel aside from the main action/figures. I found myself staring at his line work and seeing how deceptively complex they actually are. He also does great work when it comes to expressions. There’s not an abundance of line work done on his faces, but what he can do with a few dots and lines to show disapproval, embarrassment or a barely stifled laugh is pretty hysterical and impressive.

As much as I enjoyed the collection, I can’t say it was a 100% win for me. I like the majority of the strips, but as you might expect, some of them just fall flat. It’s impossible for your average younger person today to grasp every joke made in a 50 year old comic strip, but the great thing about reading a collection of single strip comics (each getting its own page) is that you can easily move right on to the next installment if the previous doesn’t do it for you. And overall, that’s the beauty of this book: while it feels, looks and is robust, the collection is very easy to read through. I read the whole thing in an evening and probably could have moved on to the other one I have waiting for me, but wanted to space them out so I didn’t get them confused when writing about them. One of the problems I’m having with some of the other comics I’m trying to read is that, with such high page counts and in-depth strips, it’s exhausting to get through. This hardcover measures 5 3/4×6 1/2×2 1/4 inches which really is the perfect size. They probably could have doubled the page length and covered twice as many years, but that would presumably also drive the cost of production up. I think this is the perfect presentation and like many of these fancy hardcover comics strip reprint projects, the series of these would look amazing up on a shelf. I have visions of shelves filled with various strip collections I like that make me want to move into a larger space. The price point for these books might be a little hefty without a sale, but I’m definitely going to keep my eyes peeled for more of these volumes in the future.

If you’re curious or want to read along with me. I’ve also got the very first Gasoline Alley Walt & Skeezix book from Drawn & Quarterly which I’m loving as well as the first two Dick Tracy collections from IDW and Peanuts Vol. 14 also from Fanta which has been shockingly fun and entertaining so far. If anyone has any suggestions for other old strips to check out, let me know. I’m also keeping my eyes peeled for a sale on that Complete Calvin And Hobbes collection because I’m a huge fan of that series and want to read the whole thing in a nice format.