Catch-Up at the Comic Shop for April 1, 2020

We're going to be doing something a little different for awhile. With all? most? publishers taking a hiatus from new books, the Panel Patter team will be doing some curated picks of "evergreen" or recent titles that should be easily mail ordered from your favorite comic book shop or indie bookstore. (And digital, too, if you're like Rob and out of space!) We'll keep this up for at least the month of April, but if there's a call for it, we'll keep going, so let us know what you think!

And now, let's get to the comics!

James' Pick:

November Vol. 1 by Matt Fraction, Elsa Charretier, Matt Hollingsworth, Kurt Ankeny, and Rian Hughes, published by Image Comics
November is a fantastic crime story, the first of three volumes (first published last November, fittingly). It tells a number of interconnected stories, taking place in the same city at approximately the same time. That sense of interconnection gets at the heart of one of the major themes running through November, the idea of chains. Chains can be something that bind us together, but they also represent a barrier, whether we are talking about a chain link fence, or someone being chained (literally or figuratively). The motif of the chain link fence shows up a number of times in November; one character feels the weight of the money she earns as an anchor around her neck. She’s chained to that money, and limited in her options. There are corrupt cops in the story, and the idea of the “chain of evidence” is discussed. A chain of paper clips is used as a metaphor for keeping the evidence properly, but it’s also a good metaphor for the ways that these characters are all bound to one another.
November is an absolutely gorgeous book. There’s a real all-star team of creators involved in bringing this book to life. Writer Matt Fraction displays great versatility here. I often think of him as a “funny guy” and he absolutely is, but here he’s concise and provides fantastic, realistic narration and dialogue. Fraction is just one of those writers who has a feel for what people really sound like. The art (and all aspects of the visual presentation of the book) is absolutely stunning. Elsa Charretier brings the story to life with terrifically paced, emotive, grimy yet stylish art. Charretier’s style feels classic (in a silver-age kind of way) but her skills as a sequential storyteller feel very modern. Charretier is a master of subtle facial expressions and body language (which are extremely important as much of the story involves quiet conversation), but she also uses creative panel and layout choices to play with pacing and time within the story. Her work is colored by the terrific Matt Hollingsworth who uses some creative, atmospheric coloring choices. The color palate might seem unusual when looking at an isolated panel, but within the story the colors make perfect sense and they convey the pain and loneliness that are meant to come across in the story. The flat coloring also suits the art very well.  Lettering is done by the talented cartoonist and letterer Kurt Ankeny. He hand-letters the whole book, and gives each character a distinctive font for narration (a font that suits the character well). The lettering is additive and effective and feels very much apart of the story. The whole presentation of the book is terrific (thanks to the involvement of Rian Hughes). I’d really recommend getting a physical copy if you can; it’s a slightly smaller than regular comic size hardcovers, and the entire presentation of the book is very appealing and high-quality.  November is a must-read for fans of crime stories and great drama generally.

Rob's Picks:

Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter, Mike Zeck, Bob Layton, John Beatty, Christie Scheele, and Sam Rosen, published by Marvel Comics
Though the concept is old-hat now, the idea of putting damned near everyone together for a battle royale with the stakes impossibly high (and the toy rights incredibly lucrative) was amazing in the mid-80s and this series really stands the test of time, as long as you understand that it's very much the brainchild of Jim Shooter and how he felt about the various characters. Thus in some ways, it's a bit of a Marvel Bible on how the characters are "supposed" to act in their own comics. So we get a much more dysfunctional X-Men team, for example, a Hulk whose losing his intelligence, Captain America as the Best of Us All, lots of philosophy from Reed Richards, and a Doctor Doom who schemes in a way we don't see nearly often enough. Oh, and there's the Magneto thing, where you can see Shooter using Janet to attack Claremont's take. It's full of amazing moments, from Spider-Man showing he's no slouch to a really human take on the Lizard to the idea that Galactus might play the same games as ordinary humans, so desperate is he to change his destiny.

Art-wise, Zeck is competent, if not particularly flashy. Bob Layton jumps in for a few issues and the style changes accordingly, then it's back to Zeck. He actually handles some of the bloodier stuff very well, especially Doom's pain in a specific sequence, but there's a lot of times where the figures are just too vague for my taste. Part of this probably had to do with deadline pressure and working with a man who was notorious for his exacting requirements.

Secret Wars might not work for people who like their comics to have a very realistic, grounded feel. But if you enjoy these characters being heroic/villainous in a fast-paced action romp and you missed this somewhere along the line, give it a shot. It's a blast!

Harrow County by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook, published by Dark Horse
It's extremely difficult to get Southern Gothic Horror just right. I can't even really tell you what makes a story "right" or "wrong" but it's a subtle balance that only the best writers can manage. Cullen Bunn and his collaborator Tyler Crook, absolutely nail the concept here. There's a bit of claustrophobia about the close-knit nature of the people. There's the legends of witches that cause people to whisper. There's strange family ties that lead to complications. And, of course, there are spirits who inhabit the woods and are ready to strike at their next victim.

Bunn's dialogue really works for these characters, giving them both a reserved nature and an explosive one. Meanwhile, Crook's art is some of the best examples of slow-burn horror you'll see in any comic. He doesn't have to shock, because the incongruity of a young southern lady talking to a flap of skin makes the scene work far more than any number of blood-stained pages could. The scene at the end of volume two, where a character meets their demise after looking to be a major force of horror themselves is done partly with a visual, and partly with the reaction of another character, witnessing something we'll have to imagine. Crook and Bunn completely allow the reader to fill in the blanks, rather than showing everything off.

There are a lot of great horror comics out there (a lot of which are written by Bunn!), but this one stands head and shoulders above the rest. It's an all-time classic.

Sean's Picks:

Die Vol.1 by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans, and Clayton Cowles, published by Image Comics
The world is an awful dumpster fire right now and what better time than now to dig into a story driven by fantasy and swords. Lots and lots of swords. Die is an incredible book about a group of friends who share a similarly resentful memory of a specific game night as kids. What happened that night? Where did their friend go? And why are their die suddenly appearing years later.. and, blood? The world building potential is endless with this story by Gillen and Hans. This first volume sets the foundation and roots the characters into what will soon become the daydream that you find yourself meticulously combing for overlooked details.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn vol. 1 by Dana Simpson, published by Andrews McMeel
My nine year old daughter has been asking me for months to read the Phoebe series alongside her. Selfishly I had been blankly responding with a reluctant “uh-huh” with barely any intention to follow through. A couple weeks ago I finally did, and let me tell you — this story is busting with laugh-out-loud dialogue. Pleasantly surprised and entertained for hours, I kept turning the pages looking for the next pun or sarcastic childish gimmick. Though the panels sometimes do suffer from non-linear storytelling and my adult perspective tried figuring out why, but I began to realize that it is this style of presentation that gives it so much attention by its younger audience. This book does have a large story arc, but with a similar and micro approach to story that we once had with the daily strip. I am a fan of what Dana Simpson is doing for younger readers. I appreciate the sense of humor and it’s innocent approach. To seal the deal and make this recommendation become obvious was when I found the final few pages of the book to include instructions on how to draw the main characters as well as how to create your own comic. What better way to pay it forward than to teach your audience how to become the next version of you.

Mike's Pick:

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
American Born Chinese is a book that came to me at an almost impossibly perfect time. There is plenty to say about this book, but fundamentally, I think the most important thing to know about American Born Chinese is that it fulfills the promise of graphic storytelling in the best of ways. It is a celebration of the form, and is the type of story that wouldn’t work the same way in prose. Over the course of a relatively short book considering its scope, Yang creates three seemingly distinct narratives that eventually converge into one grander endeavor. This task of interweaving the narratives allows Yang to be much more efficient as a storyteller. He puts some of the onus on the reader to follow along, but its only a minimal effort because Yang is just a damn good storyteller.

If your haven’t read any Gene Yang before, or you have but have somehow skipped American Born Chinese, it would be an excellent pick up during our quarantine times, not just because it is a critically acclaimed book to add to your shelf, but because it provides quality messages of hope and unity in a time that we could truly use those types of positive distractions. And those messages are authentic. They resonate, and they evolve organically through the book. Yang’s ability to deftly work the plot allows for this heartwarming book to also be funny and informative without feeling saccharine or didactic. Moreover, if you’re the type of reader who came to Gene Yang through his DC work on New-Superman or Superman Smashes the Klan, or you just discovered his recent hit, Dragon Hoops, picking up American Born Chinese is imperative because it lays the groundwork that Yang explores across his output, namely the poignant question: can we be two things at once?

American Born Chinese is thus the fundamental Yang text, the ur-Yang as it were. The core idea Yang tries to work through is how to reconcile heritage within a multicultural society. And though Yang obviously explores this concern through his own Chinese-American background, it’s a fundamentally American dilemma. How do we, as Americans, maintain some identity tied to our heritage and history in another part of the world while still functioning as Americans? How much give and take is important, and what trade-offs are fair?

Scott’s Pick:

Dork by Evan Dorkin, published by Dark Horse
Is there anyone as brutally honest in their comics as Evan Dorkin in his? Whether it was dairy products full of spite for humanity or the classic “geeks” full of spite for themselves, Dorkin’s work is vengeful and simultaneously confessional. In Dork, we experience a cartoonist who is self-loathing while also embracing all of the pop culture crap that’s made him into the neurotic mess that he was back in the 1990s and early 2000s. And he’s also damn funny, blending highly literary references such as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with Fisher-Price toys, having the toys act out the Cliff-Notes version of the story. In the Murder Family strips, he imagines the Adams Family or the Munsters as the murderous monsters that they would be, while still maintaining the air of the sitcom plotting of those tv shows. Back when he was creating these comics in the 1990s, he was already honed in on the pop-culture ephemera that his generation was never able to outgrow and leave behind. He loves it and hates it and that’s on display on every page and drawing of the book.

The emotional centerpiece of Dork, a book that’s this grand jumble of strips, short stories and Dorkin’s imagination laid bare for all of us, is Dork #7, the issue that’s maybe/hopefully the closest you’ll ever see a cartoonist come to having a nervous breakdown on the page in front of you. Dorkin treated this issue like a therapy session, laying all of his doubts, fears and wild thoughts out there while taking every opportunity to undercut the seriousness of his headspace with gags memories about comics, Kirby, and his own neuroses. At one point, the version of Dorkin in the comic tries to shoot himself in the head but is relieved to find that his gun is really just a Pez dispenser. And it was full of stale Pez at that.

It all sounds rather depressing but remember, this is where Milk & Cheese and the Eltingsville Club came from! This guy would go on to create the sweet adventures in Beasts of Burden. Dorkin struggled with his own feelings toward himself and the pop culture around him but he also loves it. He owns his hatred and Dork is, like all great satire, born of the artist’s contempt for those things that he loves.