Life on Mars: Emma Rios in Island #1 & #2

Island is an Image project that Brandon Graham and friends put together. It’s part anthology and part comics magazine, and it’s full of treasures. Island #6 will be in comic shops next Wednesday (January 27) but today I’m looking back at the first and second issues, which included the chilling, warming, red-inked tale “I.D.” by Emma Rios.

Rios 8

I.D. opens with three strangers meeting in a coffee shop in a future that feels familiar. They are all part of a pilot program to have their brains transferred into new bodies. The story quickly zooms out to show a Mars colony beset by political unrest, then zooms all the way back in to the insides of each character’s mind, and the smallest moments between them, and the touch of their skin against surfaces. All of it is in red. Some of it is in the stark red and white of a china pattern. Some of it is in the dusty pinks of Mars. In the first panels, the two men learn that prickly 50-something Charlotte is a writer. Themes of the wry, observant writer are spun throughout I.D., turning the story into a fantastic literary mic-drop by Emma Rios, a woman who is largely known as a visual artist.

Rios 1

Charlotte, Mike and Noa start to talk–with awkwardness, diffidence and sparks of chemistry.Each has his or her  own reasons for wanting a new body–and none of them thinks the others would understand.

Rios 3

The world beyond their restless broodiness soon comes crashing in–on the television, and through the glass windows of the coffee shop. Rios’s art pivots from quiet eavesdropping to slashing, furious shapes and lines. After a dizzying stream of action panels,  the three manage to get away from the protesters and militarized police. It’s the chaos, not the conversation, that makes them intimates. And this leads to a strange night in Charlotte’s apartment, with more conversation, emotion, and hi-jinks. It’s the ultimate sleepover, really.

Rios 9

But all the while, there is this bone-chilling awareness that they are planning to let their bodies die. It’s a cold current running underneath the human warmth we see developing between the three. When they part the next morning, Rios wraps us around Charlotte alone in her apartment. We curl like Charlotte’s fingers around her cup of tea. Every solitary, visceral moment is allowed to pass in real time. And then she begins to write.

Rios 10

One of the things that makes this story immediately great is that Rios has the restraint to go small when everything big is happening. It’s taking place on a partly terraformed Mars, in a time of popular uprisings against an oppressive class system, in a future where science has advanced to the point where your brain can be extracted and put in another body. It is terrifying. And still everyone is just locked in their own skin and in their own experiences, trying to connect through a hailstorm of identity issues.

Rios 11

(I accidentally lapsed into re-cap mode, but there is much more to the story beyond what I described–the disturbing political and scientific details of the program, the outcomes of the psychologically and physically risky surgeries, and of course the  arcs of the relationships between Mike, Noa, and Charlotte. Which is all to say, go get Island #1 and #2, and generally get into Island because this is the caliber of work that the series includes.)

Jordie Bellaire colors Agatha Harkness

There were a couple of Marvel sequences recently that made me think “this is why I read comics.” Even though the pages are in two different series with two different artists, they are both colored by Jordie Bellaire and they both feature the white-haired witch, Agatha Harkness. In both cases, we see how a limited palette shows off what Bellaire can do–and how heavily Bellaire contributes to the integrity of the stories she works on.

Scarlet Witch #1 opens quietly with Vanesa Del Rey’s dark, scratchy lines soaking up Bellaire’s moody colors. Agatha, in ghost form, is talking with her protege Wanda.

Agatha is dry, sardonic, and all in blue gray. Her coloring matches Wanda’s sad eyes. Wanda’s red dressing gown strikes a minor chord with the magenta of the room. These rich bloody colors work with James Robinson’s dialogue to drench the panels in a feeling of privacy and the bond between two women.

In The Vision #3, we go back in time to when Agatha was alive. She and her familiar are performing a ritual to see into the future. The mood immediately shifts with time and place because the colors are so subdued after pages and pages of the Vision family’s bright green hair against their red skin. The Agatha panels start quietly enough.

agatha 1

The dimmer palette accentuates Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s inking in a way the earlier pages, bulging with color, don’t. It’s a sort of nakedness. Tom King’s narration carries through the scene, moving at a different pace–on a different path–than the pictures. The boxes have been magenta all along, but  now they seem to presage Agatha’s appearance.

agatha 2

As the Agatha panels turn vicious and bloody, the red/magenta juxtaposition appears again–and again it speaks to intimacy between Wanda and Agatha.

The carnage reminds us of another supernatural white-haired woman Bellaire colored: Alice in Image’s Pretty Deadly by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios.


With a few colors, Bellaire both heightens Rios’s lines and stays out of their way. It’s one of those things that looks easy when done right–but if everybody could do it, these books wouldn’t stand out from the field as much as they do.


Little Nemo #5: Peter Hoey & Maria Hoey

(Reading Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream; Part Something of Many)

It’s important to have fun with objects, and I am having the most fun I’ve had since I bought a manual typewriter in 2012.

Still Life with Giant Book
Today’s page is a crowd-pleaser, and I never miss a chance to be among a pleased crowd. The bull’s eye look of Peter Hoey & Maria Hoey’s page was already familiar to me because it shows up in a lot of marketing materials for the book. The dream story they tell is serviceable, but the real deal with this page is that it looks good at a glance. It goes down in a big glug. It’s eminently quaffable. Clean black lines. Thick white gutters. Creative paneling decisions that don’t get tangled. Dark teal dominates the page, with pops of muted red. Not too much is said (what a relief some days, huh?) and what is said is in big clear block letters.

I took a photo from above the page–and even on my phone, with crap lighting, the picture turned out crisp, clear, and legible. So much so that it didn’t seem sporting to include that picture! So here is this one instead.

For scale: Evidence of my ongoing fascination with colorist Jordie Bellaire
In our next installment, we get excited about that business on the right by Andrea Tsurumi.


(Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream is a Winsor McCay tribute anthology by Locust Moon Press, which I am not affiliated with.)


Little Nemo #4: Jeremy A. Bastian

(In which I “review” a book with giant pages, page by page.)

Jeremy Bastian’s contribution to this Little Nemo project is in black and white and full of pleasing details in the wall paper and around the edges of the panels. It’s a few small things done lovingly. Bastian fleshes out the kernel of a dream–“there was a ship that was also a giant shoe… and I think the crew was insect pirates!”


His lettering and word balloons are unassuming, and they go well with Nemo’s boyishness. Nemo isn’t so much boyish as he is kiddish. His curiousity, his exclamations, the way he tips over the lip of the bath tub and into this dream–everything right up to and including his rumpled “Yikes!” when he wakes up in the last panel–everything is endearing. Everything makes us feel a little tender toward him.


If you think about it, you really only have the patience to hear the dreams of people you feel especially tender toward, like little children. “Any dreams last night?” my mom will ask my nieces at the breakfast table. Her eyebrows will be lofted in receptive encouragement and if one of them nods yes, she will start to beam. Not so for me; I have grown too far past that cherubic phase. If I started to tell my mom how I had to haul a casio keyboard up a slippery ladder to find a skein of yarn, her eyes would glaze over faster than you could say “rapid-eye movement.”


I can think of one exception to the general rule that dream-reporting is a children’s game. My friend Gina’s entire family has a way with dreams and the telling of them. She recently texted me in the middle of the workday: “Uncle Ferd had a dream that he tried to google ‘mayonnaise juice’ on the piano.”


(For this series, I’m reading the anthology Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream by Locust Moon Press. It’s a tribute to the newspaper comic strip by Winsor McCay, which came out over one hundred years ago and is still blowing people’s minds)

Little Nemo #3: Jasen Lex

January 8, 2016

I took Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream to bed with me. I was tired, and I know you’re not supposed to take work into bed with you–but I also know you’re supposed to work through the tiredness and try to meet your goals if you really want to be a writer. So I wanted to write about one more Nemo page before I gave up on my to-do list for the day.

Imagine a woman propped up in her four-poster bed, in the sweatshirt she plans to sleep in, wearing coke bottle eyeglasses, legs under a heap of quilts, with only little white Christmas lights for illumination. A giant book lies open on her legs, and requires the full seriousness and length of her thighs to lean against. Her heels are a little bit braced against the mattress, doing their part in supporting the book.

Jason Lex’s page is dark and less paneled than the other two I’ve already written about. It has a lot of greens, browns, and purples. It has textured large three-dimensional surfaces and then cut-aways jammed with flat, cartoony figures. Every word balloon is an exclamation written in hard-to-read gothic lettering. The cutaways are surrounded by a thick white dashed border like ugly white contrast stitching on brown leather shoes from the 1990s. Down at the bottom right, I can see that this page is showing how Nemo has incorporated the storm outside his window into his dream, and he’s imagining that these little creatures are running around possibly inside a dragon, but maybe also in a hill next to a dragon. Nemo doesn’t have any of the bedheady, tumbled-out-of-bed, half-tangled-in-bedclothes-still charm that I’m starting to recognize as a Nemo staple. This Nemo might not even be Nemo. This could be some kid named Kyle.

I’m logey and cross. I want to go to sleep and I’ve committed myself to looking at this joyless page. The best I can do is to identify features and think, “OK, I see what you’re doing with that. OK this is a piece of that cleverness.” There’s no white space. There’s nowhere for my eye to rest. There’s not room for an impression to bloom in my mind.

All the while, there’s this big expanse of the facing page, and I’m forcing myself not to look at it. But it’s there, hogging my field of vision, calling to me. There’s tons of whitespace on that other page and my eye wants to go over there so badly. It’s like I’m a little kid in bed with the mumps and I can stare at dark, unappealing wallpaper, or I can look out at a field covered in fresh snow on a bright, winter day. Maybe there are a few fences and clumps of trees, but mostly it just looks really clean and white and snowy.

And then my mood tips and teeters on this edge between dilligence and subversiveness. Suddenly I’m a little kid, up too late, but fascinated with something. Suddenly, I’m wooed by the danger of over-stimulating myself, never falling asleep, having mom barge in and yell at me when she sees my light on under the door and it’s so far past my bedtime.

That other page is by Jeremy Bastian and I will stare at it head on and write about it another night.

Sweet dreams.


Little Nemo #2: Farel Dalrymple

In which I sit in my tiny apartment, reading a giant book that is a tribute to a very important cartoonist that I was heretofore not familiar with.

Hello again, we are back with Farel Dalrymple’s two page Slumberland spread. The giant book is propped open on my sturdy laundry hamper, and from above it looks like it is floating in the air. I sit down in the easy chair next to the book and briefly put my feet up on it, just to try that out.

I know from reading Farel’s stories that he knows his way around magical children in situations that are troubling yet imbued with human kindness. With his Winsor McCay entry, he seems to have decided, “It’s ok if this doesn’t make sense” and then loaded a dreamscape with feelings and easter eggs.




Because Imp is now (for better or worse) the Waldo of this book, I looked right away to see if he was there, where he was, and how he was drawn. Ahh, I see, said the blind man, as he picked up his hammer and saw. He’s riding a bird, and when Nemo asks him why he can speak English now, Imp responds, “Maybe you just used to be more racist in your dreams.”

“Maybe you just used to be more racist in your dreams”

Now this makes sense. It makes dream sense. It’s like how last night, I dreamt that I slept with an acquaintance and in the dream he had washboard abs. I woke up laughing because my dream self seemed to celebrate washboard abs a lot more than my waking self. So maybe tonight I will dream about him again, and I’ll say, “Wait, why do you have a normal, middling physique now?” and he will say, “Maybe you just used to be more shallow about male beauty standards in your dreams.”

If there’s anyone who can get to the heart of that real weird dream logic, its Farel Dalrymple. Nemo goes through wardrobe changes in every panel, flies, and doesn’t know who he can trust as dream-reality shifts all around him.


Underneath the pastel candy colors the pages are anxious, and maybe weary. Like underneath all the razmatazz, dream Nemo really just has a plane to catch and a calculus examthat he had forgotten about, for a course he didn’t know he was enrolled in.




Self-Centered Comic Book Reviewing

It’s ok to be self-centered, in the sense that, well — you are you. You pretty much better be centered IN yourself, if not ON yourself.

Are you reviewing comic books because you want to get into comic book writing, drawing, or editing yourself?

Are you trying to impress someone?

Do you want to feel closer to comics creators?

Are you trying to give good press to indie creators you don’t think get enough attention?

Do you get mad when those creators seem indifferent to your efforts when you were just trying to HELP them?

Do you feel defensive about being on the sidelines?

Are you afraid of making comics industry people mad?

Do you quiver with pleasure when a blurb of yours shows up on the cover of a trade paperback? Do you treat it like an accomplishment? Do you realize that being selected for a blurb just means someone thought you made a good shill right then, with those seventeen words you strung together acceptably well?

Have you considered that a review is an essay, and the essay is an artform? You — yes, you! — are making art. Do you know what that means? You’re expressing yourself. Your goddamn SELF.

So be selfish. Eat comic books in wolfish gulps and respond without fear. Stride across the earth. Let your belches echo off the mountainsides. It’s all your fodder  — YOURS. You, You, You.

Other people are still out there, but they don’t matter as much as you do.

What do you have to tell us?


Little Nemo #1: Roger Petersen

January 2, 2016

My first glance at Roger Petersen’s page made me realize that going in blind might have been a mistake. Too late now!

On this page, Nemo’s dream friends Flip and Imp are looking for him high and low in a domed library that’s on the moon… where it’s snowing.

peterson nemo

The storyline is clever, I eventually see. The art goes straight to the “Love it — LOVE IT” part of my brain, stroking all those primitive receptors that are the reason people put bold black and white designs in babies’ cribs.

But what I really see and notice and think about first is the fact that Imp is  a gross caricature of a dark-skinned “Native” and says things like “UG UN RUGGLE!” instead of speaking English.

I know, I know–different time, 105 years ago, part and parcel with the culture Winsor McCay lived in. And I registered pretty quickly that Peterson wrote “after McCay” after his own name in the lower right hand corner, as if to say, “not my idea.”

Still, it’s like when you’re meeting your boyfriend’s dad for the first time, and your boyfriend’s talked him up a lot, and you really want to like him — and then the guy almost immediately tells a racist joke.

So my thoughts caromed around the inside of my head in the uncomfortable pinball path of a white person of 2016 who doesn’t want to be a racist asshole. And who thinks the Washington Redskins are way overdue for a name change.


I mentally sputtered, “Well-what-hey-now-I-I-I would REALLY like to know what Ron Wimberly thinks about this!” Then I remembered that Ron Wimberly has a page coming up in the book, so maybe I will find out what he thinks then. I calmed down a little.

All the while, Petersen’s art went to work on another part of my brain. The page is magical–the moonscape, the falling snow, the mystery of the domed building among the craters, the contrast of white and black, the thick lines, the convex and concave lines of the building, the bindings of rows and rows of books that are each are drawn a little differently from others but repeat along a curve in an almost-pattern.

And then there is Imp, a beautiful assemblage of shapes and lines. He bounces and scampers from panel to panel, always compositionally important and always drawing the eye. I just don’t want to see him this way again. Maybe this sensitivity is just part of what separates McCay-adoring journeyman cartoonists from a McCay-agnostic comicbook-eater like me.


Opening Nemo

January 1, 2016

Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream came out in 2014 and I was among the first batch of people to get a copy because I signed up for one through Locust Moon’s crowd-sourcing efforts. I thought it sounded cool.

I will lay before you the extent of my ignorance–I found out who Winsor McCay was only through the press for this Locust Moon tribute anthology. I didn’t know that there was this genius cartoonist hero called Winsor McCay that started this big full-page newspaper comic strip in 1905. The Locust Moon gang rounded up dozens and dozens of contemporary cartoonists to each contribute one McCay-inspired story in this giant-page format. The result is a book that is a giant object.

I’m not always the best with objects. Here’s what happened to this one. I had it sent to my office address instead of home, because I didn’t want it stolen while I was at work. It arrived encased in cardboard. It was a bit cumbersome to haul with my other commuter accoutrement, and my buses are so crowded, and I’m always so vanquished at the end of the workday, that there never seemed to be a good time to lug it home. I forgot about it, and it leaned under my desk for several months.

Then I brought it home and leaned it somewhere in my apartment. Forgot about it for a few months. Then a new neighbor got an overly aggressive porch light that penetrated my blinds at night, and I realized that the Nemo package was a good size to blot out the light, if I propped it up against the window. In the morning I hefted it down and leaned it against the bureau. That’s how art gets treated sometimes!

Today is New Year’s Day, the great day for Generally Getting Your Shit Together. Since it’s a new year and a new me, I decided I was no longer the sort of person who lives quite so much like a Boxcar Child. I propped the package up on the chair and cut it open. Lifted the book out and tore the cellophane away. Then I stopped and cleared off my kitchen table, because I needed most of the surface.

It’s refreshing these days to encounter a physically imposing book. Seeing it dominate my kitchen reminded me of how my mom kept her Audobon Baby Elephant Folio of bird illustrations open on a special wooden stand in the living room, as if it were the family Bible.

So far, I’ve only read Bill Sienkiewicz’s fiery introduction in praise of Winsor McCay, in which he first takes a swipe at the shallow way praise is thrown around these days so that we will know: When Bill Sienkiewicz says Winsor McCay is a genius, he is not saying it like someone might call a sandwich “awesome.” OK. Got it.

More to follow.

Not a tiny apple.



Writing about Comics, with Slightly Regimented Glee

2014 flowed, and 2015 ebbed. Good riddance, 2015. I want 2016 to count, and so I’m gearing up and probably over-doing my plans. But I don’t care.

“I’m starting my coffee, if anybody cares…”

2014 was the year I got back into comics and started blogging about them for fun. I pretty quickly stumbled into a weekly writing gig with the Best Shots team at Newsarama. I got to work with David Pepose, who is a great editor. I got in the groove of deadlines. I learned a lot about reviewing. I learned a lot about comics. I got over my fear of stating a strong opinion, or looking stupid. It was sometimes stressful, but it was increasingly just fun and manageable. It had a rhythm that fit into the other rhythms of my life.

THEN WHAT HAPPENED IS, near the end of 2014, I attracted a little more notice. I got invited to write meatier, more featurey stuff at Paste’s new comics section, and I was also encouraged the be the main comics-opining lady for a new Seattle feminist magazine, STACKEDD.

Around March, of 2015, I officially flamed out of all my writing gigs. The increased pressure and the writing deadlines that were a month out for more complex pieces (as opposed to the tighter weekly schedule for simple reviews) did not mix well with what was a very busy, often-stressful year at my day job (which is sometimes more like a day career). I WASHED UP. I was so stressed. I knew it was mostly in my head and that I did not need to actually have that level of deadline anxiety and shyness about editors and writing dread. But I just did. So I stopped writing altogether and felt dumb and embarassed.

A few months ago, I came moseying back in the form of “I’ll just say whatever I feel like on my own blog that has 21 followers” and that has felt good. I remembered why I started writing about comics in the first place: Because they are fun, they are bite-sized, I love visual art, and every issue is a perfect little “story school” lesson unit.

My weakest point in my general writing life — be it technical writing or long-form non-fiction or short stories — has always been structure and the rise and fall of energy. I’ve been better at the fabric of the thing and not so good at making a dress out of it. In a way that says, “Hey don’t take yourself so seriously!” and also, “Have some eye candy!”, comics gave me a way to digest some basic concepts about story-telling. I’m at the point of my long, stumbly, half-assed writing life, where I do not mind being remedial AT ALL. Just give me the make-up work and put me in summer school.

So in 2016, I am not aspiring to go back to a wider readership or get back in with publications. But I do want to write about comics a lot. On my official list of three writing goals for 2016, I wrote “Write about comics with gleeful abandon.” But because I need structure too, I am giving myself a schedule to write about some of the books I’ve been buying but not reading– the ones that look really cool and I haven’t gotten around to. And I’ll write about them in pieces at a regular pace. Copra, by Michel Fiffe, starting back at #1. Brandon Graham’s Island, which I clued into late, and which I hope will persist (you had me at Farel Dalrymple). Matt Huynh’s webcomic The Boat. Locust Moon’s Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream, which is broken up into nice little units to chomp through systematically.

I’ll try to keep an eye on stuff as it comes out too, to the extent that I am having fun and not getting over-whelmed. To the extent that I can keep everything at the nice clip of essay-writing drills. I want to get better at writing something decent pretty quickly. Then hold that pace steady and try to ratchet up the quality through repeated practice.

My other two writing goals have to do with 1) a big ambitious book project that I shelved a few years ago and have always itched to return to, and 2) nerding out further and better on technical/business writing and editing (relates to day job as well as schemes for transitioning to the self-employed writing life).

That is all. Happy New Year.




Women (Characters) in Comics in 2015


Writing one of these year-end wrap-ups makes me feel like I’m leaving too much out but this thing was making me crazy enough as it was. I mostly just picked the characters that I could use to say what I felt like saying about comics. Now that it’s done, it *IS* kind of fun to scroll through this diverse array of characters with all the colors and textures bringing them to life in their panels. I wrote this for women-centric mag STACKEDD but I have man favorites too, a separate list I will try to put up here before New Years. Cheers!



Jughead #1: A Ballet of Ground Beef

Was there ever a more promising set-up than the blithe, goofy team of Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson let loose on teenaged oddball, Jughead Jones? The hype for Jughead #1 may have been mostly in my head, but it was a strong and rising drumbeat. It was fueled by the winningness of Mark Waid and Fiona Staples on the all-new Archie comics. It was stoked by the charming tagline “More than just burgers. But mostly burgers.” And then I got it, the comic itself, a floppy full of color and pop-pop-pop playfulness. But whether this Jughead run will live up to its own promise is another question, as Zdarsky and Henderson monkey with basic Jughead physics.

waid jughead
The Mark Waid and Fiona Staples Jughead whetted our appetite

Zdarsky and Henderson are at their gleaming best on the two pages when Jughead discovers that you can make food, and that there are classes in his high school where useful things can be learned, such as making food. This is funny both for commitment to a gag, and for Henderson’s visual storytelling. In one panel, Jughead has his back turned to Betty and the home economics teacher (and us)—his hands are up, he’s casting a dramatic shadow on the wall, and he says “—SO, if this a class… can you teach me to make…” and then the next panel zooms in ridiculously close to his face as he looks over his shoulder slyly, cocks an eyebrow, and says “…Hamburgers?” It’s laugh out loud funny and probably makes the whole issue. Jughead turns out to be a prodigy in the kitchen, prompting the line “It was a ballet of ground beef” by a stunned onlooker, but when he’s done he just doffs his apron mic-drop style and leaves. Jughead doesn’t give a damn. He has his own agenda.

jughead you can make food
“You can MAKE food?”

The problems of the new run are also inherent in this nicely executed moment. Betty Cooper seems like a total dud. Jughead is more excitable and wide-eyed than we’re used to seeing him. The storytelling is dancy and flirty, but the story flirts with being flimsy and tinny.

The other denizens of Riverdale High have always been straighter than Jughead. All of Riverdale is Jughead’s straight man, so the other characters and their concerns have to have a little weight to them for it to work. With the focus wrested off normal high school drama and placed on Jughead hijinks, Jughead is in danger of sucking all the air out of the room. The other kids seem pale, vapid, pointless. Waid and Staples preserved the old formula more easily, because their series is called Archie, not Jughead. In Archie, Jughead strolls through the mundane halls flinging one-liners over his shoulder like casual hand grenades. Jughead is on the edge of things and part of his magic is that he is also at the center of things.  But there has to be this pass at earnestness that the reader buys into—in order to set a Jughead-worthy stage for the contrast that Jughead provides. Jughead doesn’t shine when all is Jughead. This is the problem in giving Jughead his own series, and maybe Zdarsky and Peterson will mellow their way into a solution in future issues.

Odd Man Out
“Jug is a weirdo!”

Another problem is that Zdarsky’s Jughead immediately betrays his Jughead nature by getting worked up about something. He’s theatrically upset about the food in the cafeteria changing because there’s a new principal. That’s the whole plot line of the issue, and it’s both more mature and less mature than the Waid and Staples All-new Archie run. It’s less mature because it’s more bright and kiddish, without the teenage concerns of love, money, and saving face taking center stage. But it’s more mature because it streaks through thumbing its nose at that banal stuff, saying “We’re too smart to be anything but dazzlingly child-like! This is what it looks like when something is deceptively simple but actually quite sophisticated!!” Just like Jughead, but with more oomph.

jughead pupils
Erica Henderson’s excitable Jughead

And oomph is a lot of this. Zdarsky’s writing is energy-packed, funny, and full of verbal Easter eggs. Erica Henderson’s art is very much in line with the chipper, wide-eyed enthusiasm of her Squirrel Girl. But Squirrel Girl is a wide-eyed character, and Henderson’s stylistic tendency to draw people with tons of white showing in their eyes (and pin-prick pupils) doesn’t fit as well with Jughead. Jughead is famous for barely keeping his eyes open. That’s part of his running gag. We see it in the Jughead strip by Samm Schwartz in 1949 (included in the back of this issue), which is full of physical humor. Schwartz keeps Jughead heavy-lidded and bored-looking even as Jughead flails and pinwheels through emergency situations. It makes everything funnier.

Jughead's excitable cousin, Squirrel Girl
Jughead’s excitable cousin, Squirrel Girl
Classic Jughead half-mast eyes (Samm Schwartz)
Classic Jughead half-mast eyes (Samm Schwartz)

Other ways that Schwartz showcases slapsticky comedy in the historical strip is that he holds the panels steady in size, shape, and organization. He holds the size of the figures steady within the panels (no panning in and out, camera-style), and the background colors are muted and held steady in the scenes. This lets the funniness flicker along like a flip book. The old strip is wordy and clever too (like Zdarsky’s writing), but the restraint shown both in Jughead’s facial expressions and in the visual story-telling of the panels lets the right things pop. I realize that comics storytelling has evolved since then, but there is still a need to manage energy, detail, and attention for maximum effect.

I didn’t find a good image of the strip in the back of Jughead #1, but here’s another Samm Schwartz slapsticky page

If it seems lame to pick at this frothy confection of a comic book, well—yeah, I can see that. Zdarsky and Henderson do have chemistry, and they have come up with something fun. Zdarsky’s cozy letter to readers in the back does make it tempting to just be like “Oh Chip! Everything you do is amazing!” But I think most of the real fun of re-booting Riverdale (whether by Waid/Staples or Zdarsky/Henderson) is that it is a big experiment. And we should be allowed to get in on that by taking Riverdale apart and figuring out how it works, and how it works best.

LIKE A VIRGIN: The all new Archie series!

archie 1

After 75 years and a zombie spin-off, Archie Comics has started again back at Riverdale High, on issues 1, 2, and 3 (so far). With the fresh eyes and star power of Mark Waid and Fiona “Faces I Crush On” Staples, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the series reboot was clever and fun, but not a very Archie new Archie. But Waid and Staples have created the Archiest of Archie comics, making it a sheer pleasure to meet everyone again, this time all the way back at the beginning of the story.

Archie Comics were my comics when I was a little kid, but when I came back to comics as an adult, I didn’t feel like I could admit that to anyone. In a way, I was surprised that Archie Comics even still existed. I glanced over recent (triple-digit) issues of the legacy Archie comics, and the new Afterlife with Archie for zombie lovers, and I found them both off-putting. In one version of reality the old neighborhood had changed beyond recognition. In another, things were too eerily unchanged.

I bought Archie comics at the grocery store when I was a kid, and maybe that gave them the lasting sense of being a commodity, under-valued even though I loved them. Maybe I thought they were a little lame even then, like I knew it was part of some childhood yen for bright objects and plastic toys. My older brother systematically reinforced my feeling that I had bad taste in pop culture, and I transitioned from Archie straight to Seventeen magazine with a sort of normcore acquiescence.

archie 2

But when I came back to comics over twenty years later, I still wanted to feel what I felt reading Archie. I looked elsewhere for the Archie spirit and found it in She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Gotham Academy, and Rumble. It’s physical comedy, goofy wordplay, bright colors and youthfulness. It’s smart enough to slide down easy, smart without seeming to want that label.

In ways I wouldn’t have even thought possible, Waid and Staples bring Archie into today while preserving the wacky high school hijinks of the original. The hyuk hyuk jokes, the pratfalls, the aw-shucks body language, the cartoonish vocabulary of sounds and symbols are all there. There are little updates—some relief from relentless whiteness, the jalopy is of a 1980s vintage, people text—but these updates merge seamlessly with the old-timey silliness.

archie 4

Archie still has cross-hatched orange hair, and Jughead still has a crown, but the characters have more expressive, detailed faces than they did back in the day. Especially with Betty and Veronica, Staples makes a good compromise between the scooped-out tweety-bird faces of the old Archie comics and the chiseled nuance of the faces she draws in her Image series, Saga.

Maybe the best thing is the dry-witted Jughead. Seeing him with that little injection of Staples sexiness makes me realize maybe he was sexy and central all along. Maybe I was just too young to appreciate him. Maybe I just forgot about him? Now I have a crush on Jughead and think he would be played by a young John Cusack or Joseph Gordon Levitt. Someone tired-looking and acerbic, yet somehow jaunty.

archie 3

I don’t know if the all new Archie was written for actual tweens, or just for people like me who are nostalgic and may have peaked in high school (ahem!). I don’t care. They aged my childhood forward, floated over all the hurdles of hokiness and shabbiness, and gave me something bright and beautiful to enjoy all over again.

More Jughead excitement: Keep your eyes peeled for my forthcoming review of Chip Zdarsky’s new Jughead #1!!

The $8 Comic Book as an Object

The tweet went something like “IWAH is gorgeous, but I can’t justify $8 for a single issue.”


The three installments of It Will All Hurt each have more than twice as many pages as most comic book issues, on big sturdy pages, with no ads. But let’s not quibble about that. We all spend too much money on entertainment sometimes. As Ulises Farinas said, a comic book needs to be at least as enjoyable as eating a big fancy cupcake, because they cost about the same and take about the same amount of time to consume.

Unlike a big fancy cupcake, which I would dispatch immediately, I’ve been carrying the three IWAH issues around in my shoulder bag for weeks. I read them on the bus in the morning. Then I jam them back in my bag and go to my office job. Later I take them out again when I get back on the bus. I’ve read them dozens of times.

Another comic book I like these days is Gotham Academy, part of DC’s bat family. I could go on about that one; it’s fun. It passes the cupcake test. But like a cupcake, I can’t leave it in my bag and cart it around. It would fall apart. The pages would come unstapled, and then they would start to crumple. The wear and tear would be too much. Then my shoulder bag would just be belching out ragged scraps of thin, shiny paper. I would just be able to make out Nick Lachey’s face, hocking Twix bars right underneath the panels.

But even before it arrived at that sorry end, could I even read an issue of Gotham Academy dozens of times? I do smile at the antics of Maps, and I love a good Pommeline dig. Oh let me count the ways the story of these children is better than everything else I’ve seen from DC lately. Maybe I just like stories of children, and how they are sad old funny souls. And I like the way this big committee came together to create this thing that in many ways works. If you were to imagine an animation of its creation, you would see the pieces flying together from all these different minds and sources along an assembly line. Ah yes, this product is approaching economies of scale! The machinists come and tinker with the settings, and then a different product flies out.

And if you imagined the creation of It Will All Hurt, it would just be the weird kid in the back of the classroom, doodling gross things with eyeballs exploding, and the gore would bloom off the page and out into the room as his own eyeballs turned inside out in slow motion, like thick pink and red noodles. It’s entertaining, but it’s not entertainment. It’s expression. For a slight premium per page, you get to crawl around inside the mind of one Farel Dalrymple.

It Will All Hurt is about children too. They don’t seem fully lucid about where they are and why. “We are all dreaming the same nightmare,” they say, and it preserves the feeling of a dream that we remember in scraps once we wake up. The story is always in motion—trekking, climbing, flying, falling—but it’s also a still life. The characters spend a lot of time looking small in wide landscapes. The roughly rectangular panels float apart from each other. The speech goes like—someone says something. Then there is silence. Later someone else says something. When someone finally speaks, it is often such a throw-away kid thing to say. You crack a smile. You feel sad. It is funny and strange. These kids live in a world where they feel safer alone, but they find tiny ways to play.

The tweet was also wrong about IWAH being gorgeous. It’s not gorgeous. It’s brutal and kind, and makes you feel things.