by Noelle Stevenson
2015 (originally published 2012 to 2014) • 272 pages • HarperTeen
When last I reviewed a web comic turned graphic novel (Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half), I brooded upon the fact that blogs are living things while books are fixed. In that situation, I had the benefit of having followed Hyperbole and a Half for quite some time beforehand. I had experience with it as both a web comic and a graphic novel.
Not so in the case of Nimona, Noelle Stevenson’s senior thesis turned complete comic. I knew about it when it debuted, having, alongside with most of fandom, fallen in love with Stevenson’s witty and thoughtful sketches on her tumblr. By the time I decided that I did want to read the web comic, I knew it was going to be published by HarperCollins, so I decided to wait.
And I think I’m the poorer for it.
Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days
by by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris
2005 (originally published 2004 to 2005) • 136 pages • WildStorm
It is amazing how time passes. Every once in a while, I’m astonished to realize that it’s no longer the late aughts but 2015, but I usually have a pretty good grip on where I am. (Where am I? Feverishly waiting for Trainwreck to come out next month, that’s where I am.) It’s far more disorienting to read something from George W. Bush’s presidency and have that whole political and pop cultural climate come rushing back. It helps (or hinders) that the early aughts were my political and pop cultural awakening (thanks, The Daily Show and The Lord of the Rings), so it’s sort of realizing that you still know all the words to Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I” even though you haven’t heard it in years.
That’s what it feels like reading Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ Ex Machina, because this series is so pointedly a response to the post-9/11 world that it brings you right back there, all the way back to 2004. Especially with the way the first issue ends—that, my friends, is what you call a hook.
Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days collects the first five issues of Ex Machina, which follows New York Mayor Mitchell Hundred during his four years in office. Of course, Mitchell earned the post largely through his brief stint as the superhero the Great Machine, gifted with the ability to talk to and understand machines, a career that climaxed on 9/11. Despite his notoriety, however, Mitchell is much more dedicated to the law than to his superpowers as an agent of good. Now, if he could only get everyone to believe that on top of running the city that never sleeps during a hideous snow storm, resolve a controversial art piece at a local museum, and solve a string of seemingly connected murders…
Ōoku: The Inner Chambers—Volume 2
by Fumi Yoshinaga
2009 (originally published 2006) • 200 pages • Viz Media LLC
It’s taken me a while to sit down and review this. I tend to have a lot of trouble reviewing middle installments of serialized comics, even if the collection contains a complete arc. If I’ve already covered the premise, it’s hard for me to rehash what I’ve already said unless the new arc does something wildly different. (This is part of the reason why I so rarely review television shows. Good thing Sailor Moon crams a thousand things into every season.) Also, while my current pace of reading lagged behind my previous schedule, it actually still kind of supersedes my current schedule. I actually, for a very welcome first time in a while, have a backlog. Which is magical, but May has been running me ragged. I just need a day to blast through them all.
I’ll get there—I always do—but I did want to mention this by way of apology to Ōoku: The Inner Chambers. The series as a whole does not deserve me dragging my feet, and this volume, in particular, demands only a standing ovation. While Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is serialized, in that each chapter is published in the magazine Melody, it’s also structured in larger, more complete arcs for its yearly publication as a volume of manga. It feels much more like installments in a book series, versus a collection of serialized comics (which is no burn on serialized comics as a medium, I should stress), which speaks to Fumi Yoshinaga’s mastery of the form.
Avatar: The Last Airbender — The Promise: Part 2
by Gene Luen Yang and Studio Gurihiru
2012 • 76 pages • Dark Horse Books
Of all the magnificently drawn characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender, I might like Toph Bei Fong and Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe the most. I have a soft spot for nearly all of them, but Toph and Sokka face particular challenges that make them stand out. Toph is a girl whose blindness and status has made people refuse to see her as a whole human being, keeping her from achieving her full potential as the greatest earthbender the world has ever seen. Sokka, besides being a glorious nerd with a penchant for shopping, is the only member of the Gaang who isn’t a bender and occasionally feels ignored, set aside, or just lesser because of it. The series doesn’t go too far down that path, but it’s present enough to form the foundation for the first series of Legend of Korra.
(Which I still haven’t finished. Yes, I know, bad fandom queer, bad!)
Avatar: The Last Airbender — The Promise: Part 2 (punctuation is taking quite a bruising today here on the blog), obviously, furthers the A plot of the comic—the psychological torment of Fire Lord Zuko as he tries to determine what’s best for the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom and Aang circling the question of keeping his promise to kill Zuko should the Fire Lord begin behaving like his tyrannical father. Unfortunately, the only way Zuko can get any information about his presumedly deceased mother is by visiting his imprisoned father daily, and his father’s theories about morality (namely, that those in power get to determine what is and isn’t moral) are seeping into his unconsciousness. Aang tries to run interference with the Earth King, but the Earth King’s previous blindness to the Fire Nation’s invasion of the Earth Kingdom has made him determined to fight fire with fire. (Pun entirely intended.)
The Promise: Part One
by Gene Luen Yang and Studio Gurihiru
2012 • 80 pages • Dark Horse Books
Was there ever a dreamier team better suited to writing and illustrating Avatar: The Last Airbender comics as Gene Luen Yang and Studio Gurihiru? Yang, the amazing Chinese-American comics writer, has written eloquently in support of boycotting the heinously whitewashed The Last Airbender movie and in glowing praise of the original show drawing on actual Asian history in a respectful way for its stories in the same comic. And Studio Gurihiru (composed of Japanese artists Chifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano) is known for its endearing, lyrical, and slightly cartoonish art style, making it the perfect choice to translate the stunning gorgeous and dynamic animation of the original cartoon series. Fittingly, the two have remained joined at the hip throughout the run of Avatar: The Last Airbender comics, from “The Promise” to “The Search.”
The Promise: Part One picks up where Avatar: The Last Airbender leaves off—with the Fire Nation safely out of the hands of the tyrannical Lord Ozai and in the hands of his son, Lord Zuko. Terrified that he’ll repeat the mistakes his father did, Zuko makes Avatar Aang promise to kill him if he shows signs of repeating the past. Aang promises, of course. A year later, Aang, the Earth King, and Zuko are working towards the peaceful repatriation of the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom. But repairing the damage the Fire Nation’s century long war against the rest of the world has caused is more complex than any of them thought.
Stuck Rubber Baby
by Howard Cruse
2010 (originally published 1995) • 210 pages • Vertigo
The backlash against Selma has taken many forms—witness those irate thinkpieces (gag) and the whitest Oscar race in decades (double gag). All for a film daring to not only ignore the White Savior complex, but actively reject it by focusing on the work of a black community. As if there’s such a difference in the liberties taken with countless period films featuring white casts! I can’t comment further, as I haven’t seen Selma. I want to, obviously. As the New England winter digs its claws in before March, it’s harder and harder to get me out of the apartment and into a movie theater.
As a rejection of the White Savior complex, Stuck Rubber Baby is, of course, no Selma—its protagonist is the young, closeted, and white Toland Polk living in a Birmingham, Alabama analogue called Clayfield during the sixties. Through his determined-to-be-straight involvement with Ginger, a progressive college student, he gets swept up into the civil rights movement. But the always hesitant Toland is hardly a hero: his involvement is scattered, although dedicated. In fact, there’s no real heroes here—people who do more than others, certainly, but mostly just people, trying to do the best they can. (It’s got that slice of life approach in common with Alison Bechdel’s work. Bechdel provides the introduction here.)
Fearless Defenders: Doom Maidens
by Cullen Bunn and Will Sliney
2013 • 144 pages • Marvel
One of my favorite comic book covers is the piece of art gracing the The Avengers #83, which features several Marvel ladies—Scarlet Witch, Wasp, Medusa, and Black Widow—standing triumphant over the fallen bodies of their male colleagues as an ice cold blonde known only as Valkyrie declares “All right, girls—that finishes off these chauvinist male pigs!” The story within The Avengers #83 is not as gloriously overt as the cover, unfortunately. Valkyrie is soon revealed to have been a false identity created by the Enchantress for extremely petty and dude-centered reasons. (Amora Incantare: the woman who became Dazzler’s main nemesis because she once got an audition Amora totally blew off. The Enchantress, everybody! I love her so.)
Ōoku: The Inner Chambers—Volume 1
by Fumi Yoshinaga
2009 (originally published 2005) • 216 pages • VIZ Media LLC
There’s a troubling tendency for texts purporting to explore a world where women are the dominant gender to simply recast the patriarchy as a matriarchy and call it a day, instead of trying to honestly engaging with gender and reimagining it. I am thinking very specifically of Dungeons and Dragons’ drow and other matriarchies that still cater to the male gaze. Because of this tendency, I tend to shrug off stories that largely swap the roles of the gender binary and focus on stories with a more nuanced view towards gender.
However, I always keep my ear to the ground, because I love being proven wrong. Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ōoku: The Inner Chambers comes with impeccable pedigrees, from the now-defunct, now-deleted, and always missed Dreams and Speculation, where I heard of it first, to its James Tiptree Jr. Award (the first for a manga), to its Eisner Award nomination. The matriarchy of Ōoku: The Inner Chambers is not a simple patriarchy/matriarchy swap. After a plague kills seventy-five percent of the male population of Edo Japan, the manga picks up eighty years later, after the culture has changed to reflect the rarity and fragility of men. Women now fill traditionally male roles—to the point that Yoshinaga’s cast is largely composed of female versions of real historical Edo figures—while men are now kept secluded from the world, valued only for their role in reproduction. Men are so rare that only the most wealthy of women can afford to pay a man’s dowry. An entire harem of men, reserved solely for one woman’s pleasure, is the ultimate luxury, and reserved only for the Shogun.
The Mighty Thor: Volume 2
by Walter Simonson
2013 (originally published 1984) • 238 pages • Marvel Comics
There is something about old school fantasy—sf that was produced between 1977 and 2001 and the attendant/appropriate rock and heavy metal—that fascinates me in a very specific way. It’s this kind of unwarranted nostalgia for something I’ve never experienced, somewhat similar to my love for the eighties. But this is more specific, usually coming with daydreams of reading poorly designed Tolkien paperbacks out on the roof in the summer of 1995. (The flannel shirt tied around the waist of this teenager who never was goes, of course, without saying.) Something about that entire configuration has been setting me on fire lately, and I’ve been trying to tease out why.
Upon reading the second volume of Walter Simonson’s legendary run on The Mighty Thor, I think one factor is just good old-fashioned Norse mythology. Its sweep covers both the fantastic and the mundane, the epic and the low, the bombast and the humanity. And you certainly can’t beat the location. It’s the kernel of fiery truth that many bad Tolkien imitators completely miss, focusing on the trappings and not the heart. (Look, nobody can be the second Tolkien, okay? The degrees required alone would bankrupt you in the United States. We just need to make peace with that and move on.) Simonson not only acutely understands the emotional underpinnings of Norse mythology, he understands where that ties into the unique bombast and mythology of Marvel comics.
The Mighty Thor: Volume 1
2013 (originally published 1983 and 1984) • 232 pages • Marvel Comics
Fandom, as I warbled hoarsely to someone at a fan gathering on Saturday, is generated by the blank spaces in a text. (This is not my theory, but Michael Chabon’s.) It’s the storytelling part of that multipart impulse—to take seemingly disparate events and synthesizing them into a satisfying narrative. Nowadays, this usually occurs in the gift economy of fandom itself, due to the evolution of copyright law, but there are still avenues in copyrighted materials open for fans to make their narratives the narrative. You see this with any text that lasts long enough to eventually pull its creative contributors from a generation that grew up with it. There’s the recently disenfranchised Star Wars expanded universe, and lifelong Doctor Who fan Peter Capaldi is currently at the helm of the TARDIS.
Such is the story of Walter Simonson and his epic five year run on The Mighty Thor. I have only ever heard of this run talked about in hushed, reverent tones, as something that shows the full extent of comics’ unique marriage of text and art. So that makes the more mundane and more interesting story of how Simonson discovered Thor all the more interesting. Having discovered the comic while in college, it dovetailed neatly with his own interest in Norse mythology that his imagination was already at work before he realized it. He ended up writing his own version of events long before he was ever offered the opportunity to write and draw The Mighty Thor. And when that chance came, he was ready, recycling what could be used from that first foray into his new work.