Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Complete Pete Mortensen Challenge

May 1

Dateline, San Francisco:

Hello, Americans! For the few who didn't see the guantlet thrown down, allow me to recap. During a recent Wednesday afternoon visit to the best comic shop on earth, The Isotope, I apparently went a little negative iin my discussion of the current state of comics. Okay, a lot negative. If a political campaign had been in progress, I was the Swift Boat Veterans, and the defenseless comic book industry was sad, dull John Kerry.

Noted entrepeneur James Sime called me out for being such a whiny bitch, and yeah, he probably was right to. All this modern-day trade-waiting, online-previewing and event-mongering takes a lot of the excitement out of the weekly tribute to the comic store. It was time to turn over a new leaf -- find joy. And so, this challenge. For the next 31 days, I'll be bringing the comics love, and from corners you might not expect. I've been making mental notes for basic ground rules on this project, and this is what I've concluded:

1. I'm going to do my best to promote current comic books, preferrably in single-issue form.
2. I won't be sharing the insight that Alan Moore and Grant Morrison are good writers and I like their work. Likewise with the art of Seth Fisher and Ryan Sook. Nothing to see here, move along.
3. I'm not going to commit to a specific time of day, but I promise to post a PMC post at least once per day during the 24-hour period of that date pacific time.
4. The purpose of the PMC is to flip out and kill people.
5. I'm going to try a lot of comics I expect to dislike to see if they surprise me. Only the successful ones will be mentioned.
6. I will purchase and enjoy at least one comic this month featuring Spider-Man's terrible new costume that I love.
7. I will only devote a post to Scott Pilgrim once, either May 17 or May 24, the day that Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness drops.
8. No shoes, no shirt, no service.

Without further ado, your host for the Pete Mortensen Challenge, Pete Mortensen!

I'm going to kick this off with a complete retrospective of the only possible series befitting the first of the month: Solo, DC's consistently spectacular series that spotlights individual artists for one delightfully satisfying 48-page issue each. It's been almost two years since the series launched, hard as that might be to believe, and though an official announcement has still never come down, it's strongly believed the series will wrap up in August with Solo #12 by Brendan McCarthy.

I don't have a lot to say about the cancellation, other than that it's incredible we're getting this many issues of a series that changes completely in talent, style and executiion month to month, and that, if nothing else, we're getting new comics work from Brendan McCarthy for the first time since the issue of Shade the Changing Man he drew way back in the early '90s. That alone is the single-most joyful announcement of the decade. That's for everything, not just comics. August is taking us out with a bang. In the meantime, here's a guide to the Solo that was, is and soon won't be.

• Solo #1: Art by Tim Sale -- This was the first and I believe best-selling of the issues in the series. Sale is something of a rock star thanks to his work with Jeph Loeb, so the word really got out on this one. On the whole, the medium was the message in this issue. Not every individual story was great, but then one would be exuberant and novel -- like the story about his parents. It's a simple story, told well and told often in other media but often neglected in comics. As such, it stood out. And it lit the way for what was to come. The noir tale with Brian Azzarello is also pretty great.

• Solo #2: Art by Richard Corben -- Another issue that showed potential for the format more than it delivered, though it was still an engaging read. The art was spectacular, as you might guess. The biggest piece to the puzzle answered in this issue was, "What does a comic have to look like?" The answer is, "whatever the artist feels like at the moment." Corben really experimented a lot here, which is saying something for an artist who's had a gorgeous and defined style for the decades. The 3-D computer generated look he goes for is still is, just in a more sleek and streamlined manner. I still prefer his pen-and-ink work, but it's a delight to see a veteran trying new tricks. Plus, there's a great Jim Corrigan Spectre story by John Ostrander. Absolutely savage stuff.

• Solo #3: Art by Paul Pope -- This is the gravy. I've been an increasingly big fan of Pope ever since 100% dropped in the summer of 2002. He's never one to be confined by a format regardless, but it's even more fun to see him have available all the genres he works in anyway -- myth, sci-fi, slice-of-life -- alongside his takes on DC characters. This is loud, explosive, gutty comics, occasionally tempered by a quiet story of a neighborhood or a mail-order giveaway. I just reread this last night, and his cover version of OMAC #1 is even better than I remembered. His Cesar Romero Joker is second-to-none as well. Pick it up if you get the chance.

• Solo #4: Art by Howard Chaykin -- An outstanding collection of Chaykin-esque two-fisted tales authored, appropriately, by Chaykin. This is a garden of EC delights, from nazis and jazz to Chaykin's retrospective of his own career. To a reader who isn't way into Chaykin, this issue has plenty to appreciate -- for the addict, this is the Bible.

• Solo #5: Art by Darwyn Cooke -- Five issues in, somebody blew it up and reassembled it. This issue right here is the single-best single issue published by anyone last year. No exceptions. Cooke morphs his style from Hank Ketcham's Dennis the Menace to '50s commercial art and zip-a-toned culture jamming from page to page. Somehow, across almost 10 stories, Cooke tells a cohesive tale of Slam Bradley at a bar for comic characters out of time. It also has the most terrifying (and invincible) Batman I've seen in years.

• Solo #6: Art by Jordi Bernet -- Though I'd heard Bernet's name before, the only art of his I'd ever seen was a pin-up of Augustus Medici from 100 Bullets #26. This issue was a revelation. Great little stories from a variety of different writers, multiple genres, dangerous dames and weirdness. Totally worth your time.

• Solo #7: Art by Mike Allred -- This was the issue I was most excited about when the series was announced. And though Darwyn Cooke's issue leaped to No. 1 with a bullet, this is easily the second-best in the entire series. Allred, as you might expect, goes for goofy, pop-art versions of the DC characters, and tells some really great stories. The best is either Batman A-Go-Go, a hilarious demonstration of why darkening the character can be a difficult thing to explain, or Teen Titans v. Doom Patrol, which is flat-out the funniest thing I've read in a superhero comic in years. Plus, there's a picture of Mike on the back page in a mask. Awesome.

• Solo #8: Art by Teddy Kristiansen -- It should come as no surprise that the work of this chameleon-like Dane is also among my favorites; there's a lovely Deadman story with Neil Gaiman, as well as some great stories by the artist himself, the best being the story of a young man falling in love during a hot summer. You can feel the humidity.

• Solo #9: Art by Scott Hampton -- A variety of great stories here, including one about a department store Batman who accidentally catches some crooks (with help from Batman himself). There's also a pretty good story about a fading comics superstar who ghosts through other artists in order to stay marketable. I thought it was a preachy story about talent getting thrown over in the business, and then it got really, really dark. And Hampton's art is gorgeous throughout.

• Solo #10: Art by Damion Scott -- Probably the weakest of the series. That's not to say it lacks some great art and a few great stories, just that it felt slight. It's padded out with behind-the-scenes notes and a section of pin-ups. A lot of people complained about the muted colors in the artwork, but I thought it worked quite well when the writing clicked, as it did on the future Batman and Batwoman story -- the graffiti influence was nice.

• Solo #11: Art by Sergio Aragones, script by Mark Evanier -- This is forthcoming in June, and I'm hoping it really goes nuts. Evanier and Aragones previously have created twisted versions of DC characters (See 1996's "Sergio Aragones Destroys the DC Universe), and it was pretty great. I'm even more excited that this won't have to maintain a single through-line to the story like the previous one. I want this to be broken up into dozens of stories, with no rhyme or reason in evidence.

• Solo #12: The Holy Grail.

See you tomorrow, folks! And remember, keep watching the skies!

May 2:
Day 2, Sam and Sally American!

And what better way to mark the occasion than by spotlighting my favorite ongoing series that has so far seen but two issues -- Steven Seagle and Becky Cloonan's American Virgin, published monthly from your Vertigo Comics.

In case you're wondering, American Virgin has nothing in common with 40-Year-Old Virgin, the comedy starring Steve Carrell -- except for the whole virginity thing.

It's an odd duck of a series -- some kind of commentary on the abstinence movement and third-world civil war, with a healthy dose of BMX stunts, but the skillful touch of Seagle and Cloonan are making it work and taking the series far beyond its high concept. I reached a point a few years ago where I read every comics solicitation and pretty much knew where every series I was reading was headed. I know make a point of only looking at the writer and artist on a given title, as well as the cover. For that reason, I have no idea where this series is going. I'm buying in singles, and I intend to keep it that way, even though I know Vertigo has a trade paperback waiting in the wings.

The ride so far has been twisty, often funny and occasionally frankly emotional. Seagle's characterizations ring true, and the bigger picture is very slowly unfolding. I don't have a clue what the end-point of this story is meant to be, and that's a thrilling feeling. As with any Vertigo series, sales are not setting the world on fire, but you can easily improve the health of this series by picking up the first two issues and booking your local comic shop for more copies if they've sold out. What's appealing about promoting something so early into its life is the chance to make a real change in the longevity of that series through commerce.

And, hey: REALLY sleazy Frank Quitely covers, soon to be followed up by REALLY sleazy Joshua Middleton covers. Get them while they're hot.

May 3:
Hello, America. I'm David Brinkley. I bring you this afternoon a very special installment of the Pete Mortensen Challenge: The third one. A lot of people don't know this, but there was an extended period where Pete Mortensen stopped buying comic books. Scientists now refer to this era as "high school," distinguished by an entire entertainment budget being transfered from one medium (so-called "comic" books) into another (the devil rock "music").

It would be four years between the first regular period of comic purchasing and the second for our subject. Intriguingly, it was through the medium of music that he came back to the world of graphic narrative. I'll let him tell you how that happened, and, more importantly, WHY. On tonight's installment of THE PETE MORTENSEN CHALLENGE.

Hi, Pete here. Thank you for that lovely introduction, David. The image you see above is the reason I am a comic reader today. Its creator, Archer Prewitt, is an amazing singer/songwriter based in Chicago. I had the tremendous privilege of seeing him open for Pavement at the Vic Theatre on the band's second-to-last concert in the U.S. before they broke up. I came for the Pavement, but Archer won the day. That was at the very beginning of my freshman year of college.

At the end of my freshman year of college, I had to interview someone for a story in a journalism class, so I sent an e-mail to Archer's label. Archer sent me a note, and I talked with the native Kentuckian for almost an hour. In the course of chatting with him, I learned that he was as much an artist as he was a musician, and had put out a pair of indie comics through Drawn & Quarterly a couple of years earlier. I became obsessed with these comics, which I thought were titled "Softboy." I learned after some Internet research that the book was "Sof' Boy," and both issues were WAY out of print. This was mid-2000, two years after issue 2 had gone out the door.

When I got back to school the next year, my favorite record shop had closed its local location, and a comic shop had opened in its place. This was Comix Revolution, and it was love at first sight. CR is kind of like the less-fun, more serious Isotope. Which is not to say the Revolution isn't fun or the Isotope isn't serious, but Jim, the owner of the Revolution has a very serious appreciation for comics and doesn't really look for fun in comics -- just the answers to the big questions in life. I decided to have a look around the joint, and I found on his entire wall of indie comics (the idea of which appalled me at the time), the above comic. Sof' Boy & Friends Econo Combo, collecting into one affordable volume both issues of Archer's comic.

I dropped my $5.95 and high-tailed it home. I read the book in one sitting, and have probably read it about 100 times (most recently on Sunday night to get psyched up for the challenge) in the five-plus years since that day. Sof' Boy is relentlessly joyous This little white puffball gets split in half, stomped on, exploded, eaten, spat at, soaked, mauled and otherwise mistreated, but he always has a kind word and a level head. My own inner cynic shrivels in his presence. As I later learned from Archer in another story I wrote about him (and other members of his band, the Sea and Cake), Sof' Boy reflects parts of him but also parts of Mark Greenberg, a bass player who's worked with Archer off and on for more than 15 years. No matter what, dude's smiling.

Most exciting about the Econo Combo purchase was news that the long-awaited third issue of Sof' Boy was due any day. Any day now. Yep. Real soon. I think it was originally pegged to October 2000. And it just wouldn't come out. Years and years and years passed, finally dropping in the summer of 2004. In the intervening six years, Archer recorded and released: three solo albums, two Sea and Cake albums, a couple of EPs, and guest-appearances galore. Stupid music.

But when I finally held Sof' Boy 3 in my hands, it was like coming home. Prewitt's linework was every bit as sharp as I remembered, if not better, the storytelling was perfect, the bizarre urban landscape and its eccentric characters just as familiar. Here are some favorite Sof' Boy panels below. The scanner at work is pretty bad, so bear in mind that the real images look much, much better.

Sof' Boy is love. And easily my favorite on-going series that only has three issues. Hence today. Dig it! Both the econo combo and issue 3 should still be available from Drawn and Quarterly.

May 4:
Day 4, Jim, Jane and Johnny Public. The case of the underappreciated Joe Casey.

Writer of hundreds of comic books, a provocateur, the source of occasional spectacular failure and more exciting than pretty much anyone else in the comic game these days.

I think the most accurate description of my opinion of Joe Casey would be to say I never feel lukewarm about his comic books. I either get exactly what he's doing and love it or don't get it and put the book down. There's a lot of lip-service paid to originality, faithful characterization, love and mad ideas in comic books. Casey's one of the few who lives up to all of them. The man loves superheroes so much that the sentiment is catching. He'll make you a true believer, too.

The first of Casey's comics that I read was Wildcats 3.0 #1. I didn't get it. I left it alone and forgot about him for awhile. I then read an interview with him where he explained what he was trying to do with the series, and I got interested again, enough to pick up the first trade of the series and issue #7 when it shipped. I was back in. The reason Casey rarely finds huge audiences for his ideas is that he doesn't have a limiting definition of what a superhero is or can be. In his mind, a militant fascist porn star supersoldier can be a patriotic leader; a junkie robot can be a gameshow host and the most important hero in the world. A crippled assassin controlling the robot body of a former teammate can lead a multinational corporation.

To Casey, the superhero is not an embodiment of ideals or morals -- it's an excuse to dispense with limits to storytelling. When you're in the superhero realm, any plot point, genre or storyline is possible. These are superheroes, after all.

I didn't really get into Casey until reading Automatic Kafka, an under-rated and unfairly maligned Wildstorm series released with the other Eye of the Storm books. The series was dark, funny, often gross and very, very self-referential. A lot of people have given it a fair shot and hated it, but I adored it. It still makes me uncomfortable to read. It was a world without boundaries.

Currently, Casey's best outlet is in Godland, an ongoing series from Image that pastiches the work of Jack Kirby in the art and a little in the writing. What it does on a bigger level is explore the realms of consciousness, trash TV and the dysfunctional family.

Not every Casey project works -- I haven't enjoyed his work on mainstream characters other than Deathlok, for instance -- but that isn't the point. What matters is that he swings for the fences every time he gets to the plate. He strikes out, sure. But when he connects... that's one hell of a long ball.

See you in 24!

May 5:

Walter Cronkite checking in from Paris, France, America. Well, not America. You're America. Shut up. Let's go to Pete.

Thanks, Walter. Based on the events of this evening (a visiting friend spotted my collection and went wild), I could discuss only one comic today, the fifth of May -- the only comic I've loved since I was five: Asterix the Gaul. On a trip to visit distant relations in the Dallas area, an extremely perceptive Aunt took me to a bookstore downtown and handed me a book. Or a comic. Or a comic book. It was thin and huge and beautifully illustrated. It was something new.

I'm 90 percent certain that the first volume I read was Asterix in Switzerland. I had barely heard of Switzerland, I'd never heard of Romans and I couldn't have found Gaul on a map if my life depended on it, but I was sucked in. I read the issue over and over, scouring for details, mispronouncing all of the clever names and getting none of the jokes. There was something special here. Something otherworldly. There's an extended joke about orgies and fondue, and all I could think about was having fondue with my grandparents on New Year's Eve. Sue me. I was five.

Going back to Michigan isolated me from more adventures of Asterix, but I persisted in the search. Every few months we would drive down to Ann Arbor to visit the original, unfranchised Border's Books, and I would inevitably return with a new volume of Asterix. I learned about the ancient goths, Egypt, Caesar, Roman military rankings, Latin -- and it didn't feel educational! The most important thing was the connection of Asterix's punch -- PAF! Obelix, smacking a Roman into the ground -- TCHAC! Each 48-page volume was a minimum half-hour commitment to finish, and I read each in turn again and again, circling the stories I didn't own on the back covers.

When I was 8, my family went to Europe for a month. The first three weeks were spent in England, and I spent them in a local children's bookstore, talking my parents into the purchase of issues of Asterix not yet available in the U.S. All was well -- we were within five volumes of the complete, decades-long run by Goscinny and Uderzo. And then tragedy. On an unrelated matter, my dad and I had to go into London together by train, and I took every Asterix book in the collection in my backpack. I came back. The backpack stayed beneath a chair in anonymous tube station. Back at the college where we stayed, the other visiting Americans were sympathetic to the cause and took up a collection to refinance a new Asterix collection for my brother and me. It was silly, and my parents felt awkward, but we accepted.

Over time, my collection has built back up to near-completeness. I have some volumes in paperback, some in digest, some in original hardcover album and six issues in an omnibus. The collection stakes out a good third of one of my bookshelves, and I'm proud of it. In retrospect, many of the racial and ethnic stereotypes and assumptions of the series are really offensive. It didn't matter at the time, and I can only roll my eyes since. Besides, I'm certain at least the portrayals of Africans is deliberately subversive toward its audience, But that's ping pong in the context of today. At its heart, Asterix is hands-down the greatest all-ages comic book series ever published. Nothing is on a plane with it, not even TinTin.

If you're interested in the series, look for the British editions from Hodder-Dargaud, as later American publications rename some characters and dumb down the puns for an American audience, and they just aren't as good. Getafix should not be named Magikgimmix, and that's just the beginning of the problems with the American editions. Regardless -- nothing in comics has ever made me happier than the concluding battle royale in Asterix in Corsica. It stays with me. It informs how I look at comics and at art.

Come on, get a fix. You know you want to.

May 6:

And that, ladies and gentlemen, will be the last time I ever bring Abba onto the program. Can we get some kind of cleaner on the carpet? I'm not seeing how to get that out, otherwise. We'd better shift gears. Pete?

Thanks, Dick. In honor of Free Comic Book Day, I give you my list of talents to pay more attention to based on the books I picked up.

Like any Scottaholic, "Free Scott Pilgrim" was by far my most-anticipated book of the day. However, the storyw as a bit too slight to really enjoy on its own (and I'm really jonesing for Scott 3), so it was a delight to discover Fearless Griggs in the back of the book. Created by cartoonist Andy Helm and soon to star in his own original graphic novel, "The Aggressive Adventures of Fearless Griggs," the comic included here was an excellent mix of the sensibilities of Mike Mignola's "Amazing Screw-on Head" and the Nintendo realism of Bryan Lee O'Malley and Corey Lewis. The artwork is moody and skillfully rendered, and Helm tells an effective story without getting bogged down in issues like coherence -- instead driving for fun, action and humor. I cannot wait to get my hands on the full-length adventures of this 112-year-old cranky pants.

Free Comic Book Day is at least as much about reaching new readers as it is exposing long-time comic fans to new talent. On both points, it's hard to imagine a more effective publication than Andy Runton's "Owly: Breakin' the Ice," a 32-page wordless story of friendship, sharing, greed and popcorn. I've been told to check out Owly forever, but I just hadn't taken the plunge. This story has me hooked. I enjoyed these 32 pages of comics more than just about any I've consumed in the last year, and it was about an incredibly cute owl and his other woodland pals. These are some of the best kids' comics I've seen as well, easily matching the quality of the free Peanutbutter and Jeremy story James Kochalka released a few years ago. Young relatives of mine got a trade of that series after I read that freebie, and this is no different. Owly is a delight.

I've known Joel Priddy's name for years, but I never read ofne of his comics until picking up "The Preposterous Voyages of IronHide Tom," Adhouse Books' offering for FCBD 2006. Priddy uses a deceptively simple line to tell pirate stories not terribly removed from the gonzo adventures of AIT's Scurvy Dogs, if in a slightly more reflective manner. It's a very dense and engaging comic, covering the highs of treasure discovery and the lows of bankruptcy following a foolish investment. The highlight of the comic comes in a one-page story entitled "Tar's Tales," wherein Ezekiel Tar, "The saltiest dog in all the seven seas," tells the story of an encounter with IronHide Tom. It is totally awesome. Also: Unintelligible.

(Ezekiel Tar)
Thar yam aye, reskink arn th' arbaftment, nay? Arn thar 'e be, mir midst ar unscrangstly urv men. An' dew ye ken har th' blastenk barnickle sars thar hawser? Aye, mit tipsill sheets! Ar ar a-ar! Wer ronder arn abit thar. Thar bosun rars alung darn th' arpper fore wizzendecks... Arn 'e lees toppolink arn mull ashunder...Smark amidships!

But I don't want to ruin the whole story. Priddy's got a new book coming out this winter, "Redwald the Rooster," and I'm so in. If it's even half as good as IronHide Tom's tales, it will be a mighty work.

I had heard Michael Kupperman's name many times over the last several years, as well as the title of his comic, "Tales to Thrizzle," but I just hadn't explored his work at all until today. What a talent. He only provided four of the pages from this year's Fantagraphics Funny Book, but those pages are filled with satire of Encyclopedia Brown (always a guaranteed winner in my book), the introduction of Jesus's half-brother Pagus and the Oscar Madness trivia page, which is flat-out the funniest send-up of bad Hollywood reporting I have ever seen. The man's got a talent. Heck, make it two: Writing and drawing.

Phillippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian have ben making brilliant comics in France for decades. Somehow I didn't really make a note of that until reading through Drawn and Quarterly's freebie of the day, "Mr. Jean," which excerpts two of their major works, "Get a Life" and "Maybe Later." Equally skilled as writers and artists, the duo share both duties back and forth, telling semi-autobiographical tales as well as strictly autobiographical tales of life in the modern age and as artists. Their cartooning is confident, playful and gorgeous, the writing effective and moving. I will definitely be exploring their work more in the future.

To bring us to six, let me just mention Dan Slott and Juan Bobillo on She-Hulk. I finally got the first trade, and it's fantastic. I'm only partway through the second issue, but the synergy between this team is evident and glorious. It really is as good as everyone has been saying.

May 7:

It's hurried, we couldn't get a newscaster, but we've got this. With one passenger, three fellow travellers and one harried host, I made a 200-mile round trip in search of comics. I dropped $12.99 and way more on gas. The important news is this. One sale at Comics Conspiracy = 120 comics on my goddamn living room floor. (Click link to see full-size image and scan covers).


May 8:

I lifted the cover to Mr. Jean from the FCBD Web site. I think they had the wrong cover themselves. My cover was a tight close-up on Mr. Jean himself. And with that, it's time for PMC Part VIII: The Enbloodening!

As soon as I finish with these fools, I have someone very special to tell you about. Delectable. Philip. Bond.

It's kind of sad to admit, but I never read a comic book drawn by Philip Bond until Vertigo Pop! London started coming out. Even then, in the heady days late 2002, I had a very specific image of what comic book art should look like. There was flashy art and there was cartoony art. No other categories. But I thought that I liked this Peter Milligan fellow somewhat, and I had enjoyed the Tokyo entry in the series so much thanks to Seth Fisher, so what the hell, right? I could not possibly have prepared for what awaited me.

Sex. Lots and lots of sex. Despite drawing the blockiest characters in comic books, Phil Bond also draws the sexiest characters in comics. It's in the spot-on facial expressions, the little grins, the playful eyes. Bond's guys and girls are up for it. They're not ashamed. They have a better sex life than you do. But it's all in as fresh-faced and harmless a manner as could possibly be rendered.

And despite the sexiness he draws out of practically everyone he's ever drawn (see his issue of X-Statix for the best U-Go-Girl ever), none of his characters are over-rendered, unrealistic or anything of the sort. He somehow gets what few other comics artists do -- it's the person, not the body. Now, I'm not arguing that sexiness is a critical component to a given comic book character, but it humanizes Bond's work, adds depth to the people he's asked to bring to life on the page. This could be attributed to the writers he works with, but I'm not so sure. Bond brings out good sexuality in his writers, not the other way around. Not to talk about Grant Morrison, but compare Vimanarama to Seaguy and We3. The first is all about healthy human sexuality and the holiness of romance and love -- the other two scarcely touch on the subjects. The Filth is as far from good sex as you can get, but then Bond's issues of the Invisibles feature the classic ending of Vol. 3 #9 where King Mob asks, "Now. Who's for a knees-up?" while falling into bed with two teammates. Contrast that to Phil Jimenez's stint on the title, when sex between KM and Ragged Robin couldn't have gotten uglier. With Bond, it's good, and it's fun and it isn't compromised or troubled.

Even Howard Chaykin -- yes, Howard Chaykin -- changed his ways with Bond. In their Angel and the Ape series, there are lots of strippers, prostitutes, lingerie and the rest, but it doesn't feel seedy. These people have learned to love who they are, and they love each other, too. Philip Bond couldn't possibly draw an ugly sex scene -- it's not in his nature. And for that, I salute him. His attitude is good for America, good for the world.

Now. Who's for a knees-up?

May 9:

And that's how I invented jazz before everyone else! Now over to Pete with the weather! Er...comic...books.

Ladies and gentlemen, I come to praise Green Arrow, not to bury him. This may come as a surprise. Off the top of my head, I literally can count on two fingers memorable runs with the character, and none of them is from the last 15 years.

But I love Oliver Queen, because he was the first comic book character other than Batman and Superman I ever enjoyed. It's very simple why this happened. My older siblings (I still can't remember which one, though I have my guesses) had some bad weird early '80s Detective Comics issues featuring a bizarre run of Green Arrow back-ups where the Queen had been recast as a crusading reporter. The only story I can remember was a three-parter I never saw the conclusion to with Green Arrow undercover at a carnival gone horribly awry.

Something about Green Arrow, even then, stuck with me. He was angry, he sought the truth, and he had a really dumb beard. These were all things that carried a ton of weight when I was 8 years old. I was hooked. As far as actual memorable comics starring Green Arrow, the list is, as noted, extremely short. Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams did one of the best runs of comics published in the 1960s and '70s on the wonderful "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" run of the former character's regular series. A second revival a bit later with Mike Grell on art doesn't quite live up, but it's worth checking out if you get hooked. The bulk of these, including the now-hilarious two-issue series where Speedy's heroin habit is discovered, are collected into a pair of affordable trade paperbacks.

The other story worth checking out, also in trade, is Mike Grell's "The Longbow Hunters." Originally published as a 3-issue prestige-format miniseries, former artist Grell began writing the character in a memorable way. Queen and Black Canary move in together in Seattle, open a florist, get new costumes, talk about having children, etc. It's a lot like Frasier, really. Okay, it's nothing like Frasier. But it is really good. It introduced Shado, a character who made a huge impact on Green Arrow (and one of his several baby-mamas). Not to mention a total bad-ass. The art is gorgeous, and the story, though very much wrapped up in the dark age aesthetic of the late '80s, is really quite moving. And Ollie is hardcore. Well worth your comics dollars.

But for the single moment that best sums up the character, look no further than issue 4 of the Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. Which I can't find, so here's a different one:

May 10:

And I don't even look that much like Bob Hope! Please tip your waitresses.

Let us now praise event comics. Or rather, not event comics themselves, but what comes after. If I was forced to explain what made me a comic book fan, I would, without hesitation, say "Zero Hour #0." Now, if you've read the book in question, this is about the same as saying you're a TV fan because of "HeeHaw" or film because of "Surf Ninjas." But it's the truth. As an impressionable, teenaged youth, I had sampled a few comics here and there, been blown away by a few (that part in Death of Superman where Doomsday smashes Guy Gardner's face and the skater kid says, "Can't hardly believe Guy Gardner got so busted up" still gets me misty), but I wasn't hooked.

Then, while at my local comics emporium, I spied a cover that was all-white, save only for silver writing, which was itself rather faint (Yep, gimmick covers works). I plunked down my $1.95 (Ah, memories) and wandered on home with a story that shouldn't have made any sense to a comics novice. Everyone everywhere ever, as well as their alternative versions from other universes, were fighting, and there was entropy (which I had to look up), and this totally mid-'90s villain in red was an evolution of a character I'd never heard of who was an evolution of another character I'd heard of, and Guy Gardner didn't trust him and had stupid armor instead of cowboy boots (I only knew of Gardner from Doomsday beating him up), and Green Lantern was the real villain for some totally inexplicable reason.

But I loved it. The writing was melodramatic. The Spectre made a stunning and stunningly ineffective entrance in the middle of the issue -- I loved his design, his righteousness. And Green Arrow had one of his finest moments ever as a hero. I even loved the totally convoluted timeline of the DC Universe. So that's when the Guardians appeared! I pored over that fold-out back inside cover approximately 80 times, and I also memorized the zero-issue launches for all of DC's series to tie in with Zero Month. It was a hokey gimmick, and the Zero Hour miniseries doesn't hold up AT ALL these days, but I got my two favorite series of the '90s out of it: Starman and Impulse. So much can be done when you tear down and start from scratch. DC realized it then, and I have reason to believe they do now.

I bought 52 #1 today, and I actually loved it. Especially the Booster Gold sequences, but it was all pretty damn good. I totally recommend it, and it feels again, like a chance to start completely over from scratch. I can't wait for all the rest.

It's a brand-new era; it feels great.

May 11/12:

Ladies and gentlemen of the American public, I would just like to say that I have no idea where the hell I am, much like a frog who can count blades of grass on the moon is unfit for public office. These guys need a bath. Now, this news.

I'd like to take this comeback opportunity to talk about the one man whose work I enjoy more than any other. Come hell or highwater, I love the hell out of Pete Milligan's comic books. And the possessive there is important. Milligan is at his best when every concept in a given title comes from him. His recent run on X-Men was pretty good. It was not "Pete Milligan's X-Men." For that, you need his and Mike Allred's work on X-Force and X-Statix.

It's incredibly hard for me to sum up my feelings about Milligan's comics in a succinct manner. I think the reason most people who know my tastes aren't immediately aware how much his works mean to me is that they often don't the first time I read them. Some do -- Rogan Gosh, Freakwave, anything with Brendan McCarthy ever, Vertigo Pop! London, Enigma -- but a lot of others are so idiosyncratic that the writing doesn't settle straight away. I had that experience when first I picked up Shade the Changing Man. The series was so alien, so wild and imaginative while also having a conscious overplot that I couldn't keep track of what was going on. As I made my way through the first dozen issues, the bigger picture came into focus, and it was glorious and innovative. My first read of his Human Target miniseries was identical. The plot was so twisted and dense that I had no idea who anyone was anymore.

Which was, of course, the point. Um...so re-reading. Right. When you have the throughline on one of Milligan's more intricate stories before you start reading it, layer upon layer of meaning float gently to the top. It's not that his work ages, or I age to meet its challenges; it's more that my subconscious finally has enough time to sift through all of the information and make the pieces fit.

To another point: Pete Milligan was a very smart guy who came to be involved in comics because it was an artform on the cusp of change. And he changed it, with his co-conspirators Brendan McCarthy and Brett Ewins. Those three issues of Strange Days they managed to get published have an impact far beyond their initial readership. They were pure bursts of imagination that changed readers and creators. Ask Grant Morrison about his favorite comic book, and he answers without hesitation, "Brendan McCarthy's Strange Days."

There are two points about Peter Milligan I'm going to try to make, beyond the fact that he's a brilliant writer whose works I read over and over again, his comics have changed my views of identity and life, and his comics with Brendan McCarthy are the best things ever published. Right. So. Literature. It's not that his comics read like fine novels, which is always a spotty claim to make in the first place, but rather that the influence of the great modernists of the 20th Century are evident, particularly in Skreemer. I read an interview with Milligan years and years ago, and the fairly out of his depth fanboy writer asked, "What can make me a good comics writer." Milligan's answer was simple: "Read anything except comics." In an industry that thrives on the recycling or revisiting of its most popular stories, it says a lot that one of its finest writers feels the best way to make a better comic is to stop reading them for awhile. To look beyond the status quo and history.

The final point: Milligan's dialogue doesn't sound like the way people talk. It also doesn't sound like the way people don't talk. It's expository or allusive or clever, but it's never what's expected. Everyone of his characters is on the verge of saying something clever at any given moment. It's a joy.

And his new Dead Girl series is great. Check out the trade when it hits.

Hello, Americans! This is...Paul HARVEY! Buy Goldbond Triple-Medicated Powder! And whatever comics Pete tells you to!

Okay, this was inevitable, from the very first post. The Milligan one appearing twice was just a sign. Brendan McCarthy is the absent god of comics. A chameleon innovator, influencer and flat-out genius with a pencil, brush and whatever other tools he brings to bear in his psychedelic, superlative comics. As I mentioned some time ago, new work from him is coming, for the first time since about 1991. It's Solo #12. If you don't read Solo, buy it. If you don't know who McCarthy is, buy it double. I only discovered the man's work late last year, but I've been addicted ever since -- and I'll pay good money to anyone who can get me a copy of Swimini Purpose, his recent visual autobiography.

For a quick primer, you should really visit The Strangeness of Brendan McCarthy, which is without a doubt the definitive resource for his work. What I hadn't realized, prior to picking up Rogan Gosh, my first McCarthy work, and then freaking out and getting into him, is that while his credits are few, his reach is extremely long. TV, Film, comic books he didn't draw an issue or cover for, other creators, everything. Here is a fairly comprehensive list of every comic he's ever drawn (and accept no substitute; his sequential work s even more unbelievable than his covers and designs): A few FutureShocks and Judge Dredd strips for 2000AD, Sometime Stories, The Electric Hoax, Freakwave, three issues of Strange Days, a few issues of Paradax, more Judge Dredd, including most of The Oz, a newspaper strip called Summer of Love, a bunch of so-called "ArToons," the mini-graphic novels Skin and Rogan Gosh, and then exactly one issue of Shade the Changing Man.

And with few exceptions, everyone is essential and influential. These are as wild and entertaining as comics get. Milligan is great. Milligan and McCarthy in comics is Lennon and McCartney in music. Those books alone would cement his legend. And in some cases, such as Rogan Gosh, his name is listed first. It's quite safe to say the books wouldn't be half as compelling without his contributions. Every page, his art looks different, his characters change and deform. The list of creators who claim him as a hero is quite heady. I think none make so much sense as the worship Grant Morrison and Mike Allred have for his work. Freakwave is the reason Allred even makes comics.

But that's not the whole story. Because Brendan did a lot of design work, too. Morrison's Doom Patrol, Skrull Kill Krew, and Zenith. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. The forthcoming Mad Max 4. Hell, even Coneheads and Highlander 2. Shade the Chnaging Man had his DNA all over it, from his brilliant covers down to the look of the characters.

Comics get no better. Hit the back-issue bins. Feed your head.

May 13:

And that, my fellow Americans, is why you will always have me to kick around. It's what I'm here for. Pete?

Today, in honor of the bright, sunny day I'm enjoying up here in the North Bay, I'm going to talk about my favorite under-appreciated talent -- Matt Hollingsworth. Yes, a colorist. The greatest colorist in the world. I had something of a renaissance in comics appreciation about five years ago. before then, it was hard for me to remember the names of writers and artists, let alone color artists or letterers. But the more I got into comics, the more I wanted to know and the more I retained.

In particular, I began to recognize the importance of the right style of coloring to enhance the mood of a story. Bad coloring can neuter the best-looking comics page, obscure its words. In the early 2000s, it seemed that there was one dominant style -- the stunningly rendered photorealism brought to bear by Laura Martin (formerly DuPuy) and then extended by David Baron, Paul Mounts and others.

So when I bought my first copy of Ed Brubaker's Catwoman (issue 12, the premier of Cam Stewart on the book), it was quite a shock to see how much could be communicated with flat colors -- almost a '60s commercial look, slick and carefully selected. Though there were no gradients or complex renderings, Hollingsworth meshed with Stewart to tell a dark story of dark dealings. He brough seedy, neon-lit streets to life, as well as sunny days in the park. Perhaps the most effectivee example of his work in that era came during issue 15, the torture of Selina Kyle's sister and her husband. Largely relying on reds, he brought horror to light, without the need for flash or pizzaz. You were there.

In a slightly different style, Hollingsworth also made the artwork of Alex Maleev look better than it has before or sense during the artist's first run on Daredevil, from issue 26 to 46 of the second volume of the book. This was more rendered, almost pastel-stick work, but it still used the temperature of color to communicate the gravity of a situation. And my lord, the way he rendered the sunglasses of the snitch who revealed Daredevil's secret identity to the feds! Unbelievable.

I've discovered and enjoyed the works of many other brilliant colorists since first taking note of the work Matt was doing, including the magnificent Dave Stewart and unique Jose Villarubia, but none holds the power of Hollingsworth for me. If he's giving color to a book, I know it's going to be stunning, if nothing else. It's also a seal of approval. He showed me a new way to look at comics, for which I will always be grateful.

May 14:

Now, for something completely different!

This one's a guilty pleasure, folks. A recently rediscovered guilty pleasure at that. While trolling through the many, many, many dime bins at Comics Conspiracy last week, I found several issues of the bizarre semi-Marvel/DC crossover event, Amalgam Comics. First experimented with in 1996 in the middle of the incredibly unmemorable Marvel v. DC event, Amalgam was memorable for all the reasons its progenating framing sequence was not: While the former series attempted to comment on the differences between the Marvel and DC universes, Amalgam just smushed characters together and saw what came out the other end.

Oh, and it was funny, too. Amalgam returned a few years later with more entries in the series, including the above Lobo the Duck. Other quality titles included Bruce Wayne: Agent of SHIELD, Dark Claw Adventures (an adaptation of the Wolverine/Batman hybrid animated series), Dr. Strangefate, Iron Lantern and more.

What makes the series work is that they draw on both parents for each character equally. They don't always make much sense, but they provide a quick, poppy version of comics meta-fiction that you're literally not going to find anywhere else. In a world of weak crossovers in the '90s, it was a breath of fresh air. Most of them still hold up, including Generation Hex, which I just picked up. The combination of Chamber and Jonah Hex? Choice.

For more of the characters who made up the Amalgam Universe, check out this appendix to the Marvel U: http://www.marvunapp.com/Appendix/amalgamd.htm

May 15:

And that's when Mr. Lincoln said, don't dis my homies! Game, set and match, Mr. Al-Jahfari.

I'll be the first to admit that I have some overwhelming biases to my comics reading. I prefer to think of them as discerning taste, but a lot of the time, it flat-out is prejudice. Among the most powerful of these is that I will buy a DC comic, any of its imprints, five times before I'll look at a Marvel book. In large part, this is simple economics. When I grew up, older siblings left behind their DC books, so I was a DC kid. Then you've got your top-notch animated series and the utter incomprehensibility of early '90s X-Men, and I steered clear.

There are, however, numerous times I've been proven wrong in my trepidation about a Marvel comic. Runaways, for example. I liked the artwork from the beginning, but I totally got fooled into thinking it would be something it wasn't by the gimmicky role-playing game opening to the series. When I finally bought the hardcover, I was delighted by what was without question among the top 10 superhero comics published in the last decade. I can only hope Marvel has such a hardcover planned for the second season of the series.

But I'm not here to talk about Runaways, nor even X-Force/X-Statix or New X-Men. We're here to talk about biases I really almost never can bypass:

1. Airbrushed
2. Green
3. Cheesecake.

Those are the three reasons I didn't try Dan Slott's She-Hulk when it hit the market. The covers were just too stomach-turning to pick up (and have been getting more surreal now Greg Horn has taken over for Mike Mayhew). Or so I thought. On Free Comic Book Day, vowing to change my ways and try something by a writer I know and love with an artist who I like. And you know what? She-Hulk is awesome, particularly when Bobillo is working with Slott. The first four issues of the first volume is just fantastic. Easily my favorite portrayal of Spider-Man ever ("J. Jonah Jameson hates me because I'm black."), some genuinely clever concepts for superhuman law and fun art with a wonderful main character.

I should have bought in sooner, and I'm getting caught up now. There's an important lesson here, I'm sure. Something about books and covers. QED:

May 16:

And that's when the pommel horse rose up and attacked John Tesh. He was delicious.

I just started to discover -- or rediscover, actually -- the wonderful TV series "Freaks and Geeks" over the last two weeks. What's incredibly about the series -- other than the writing and the use of unknowns for most of the cast -- is that if you reduce it to plot and premise, it is a series of after-school specials. This is the drinking party episode, this is the one where they find a porno, this is the one with child abuse. But it's in the details where the series works. It's the ultimate proof that a high-concept alone can't sell a story, and a cliché alone won't sink it. It might be the best show about high school ever produced, because all of the events are familiar and brutally honest.

When I was 14, there was no series to me like "Impulse" by Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos. It had everything: Humor, DCU history, weird big-footed art and explorations of the meaning of family, friendship and maturity. In a lot of ways, it was the "Freaks and Geeks" of comics. The plots were familiar -- peer pressure, child abuse, teenage rebellion -- but the details made it work.

Over 26 glorious issues, the team of Waid and Ramos took Flash grandson and heir Bart Allen from the future, stabilized him and forced to learn how to live in hot, sleepy Alabama. Bart had no attention span, but he really wanted to make his new life work while living with speed godfather Max Mercury. He gets confused by his relationship to girls, his absent parents, baseball and even his own dreams.

That's actually my favorite issue of the whole run, No. 19. In it, Bart unleashes all of his unconscious desires and fears in a dream landscape. Every page, almost, is in a different setting with a different set of sublimated emotions brought to life. Being 15 when I read it, I can confirm that it read the way I felt all the time. It was a teen book that understood what it is to be a teenager. What's funny is that I stopped buying Impulse (and comics altogether) right around issue 22. My only friend who got comics with me had taken a part-time job, so he never had time to go to the shop anymore. My whole collection languished after three years of weekly runs.

But I came back. And I like to think it was Impulse that took me there.

May 17:

What can I say? Crack-whore!

I've been thinking a lot about cities lately and the planning of cities more so. I work in a place that radically changed the way it was developing after discovering they had a large population and no community. As a result, they redeveloped their core into a mixed-use community surrounding the town center, condos over commercial space. It looks great, and people love it, and everyone says it's changed the place. It's the central issue here. So I started reading "The Death and Birth of American Cities" by Jane Jacobs today. Published in 1961, Jacobs went through and basically demonstrated why sprawl and project-styled redevelopment destroy neighborhoods.

Like a lot of things, this made me think about Starman by James Robinson, Tony Harris and Peter Snejbjerg. Starman is still my favorite long-form superhero series, even though I've grown and changed and haven't read through it in a few years now. The series does a lot of things right -- its pop culture references clearly come from James Robinson's life, instead of picking them randomly from an issue of a teen magazine, complex relationships, a revisiting of history and lineage to find new stories.

But the single thing it does best is reinvent the superhero by reinventing the superhero city. Jack Knight's best friend and lover, prior to meeting Sadie, is Opal City. With its art deco spires and French quarter, a new surprise is around every corner. A sense of place permeates the series and the character, and it sets it apart. What's especially innovative about it is how traditional the series actually is. Back in the Golden Age, every new character had a new fictional city to defend. Most of them were generic, but there was a powerful notion within it, one that's best been exploited by Robinson himself.

New urbanism, the planning style that the city I cover has begun to develop, does the same thing. It's also known as neo-traditionalism. It's what Jane Jacobs was talking about. It returns to the roots to rediscover what made things work based on actual performance and observation as opposed to theory. That's what makes Starman so powerful and why so many revisionist takes on superheroes so lifeless. A name doesn't make a character, neither does a power. It takes a place and it takes a story and it takes a vision.

The influence of Starman is filtering down to other mainstream comics these days, as is new urbanism in cities. And Jane Jacobs saw it coming. Or something. Oh, c'mon, it's got a great beat!

May 18:

Tear down this wall!

A lot of people have seminal comics that first really interested them in the medium. Usually, it's a comic published when they were a kid -- the Dark Phoenix Saga, the debut of the Fantastic Four, Youngblood getting young and bloody. It was of their time and spoke to them as youth of that time.

This didn't happen for me. No, I fell for comics in a giant tome kept at my grandparents' cottage -- The Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics. Yes, I swear that's the real title. See?

I probably first read the book at 5. It contains the main story from Action Comics #1, Detective Comics #27, Captain Marvel Adventures #100 (which is the greatest thing ever), some key Jack Cole Plastic-Man stories and a whole lot more. When the Smithsonian put together the book, which is entirely golden age, as I recall, they didn't stick to superheroes. The era was quite diverse, so there are westerns, comedy books (Basil Wolverton was a lunatic), horror, psychological drama, war, you name it. There's even, in glorious full color, the legendary Mad story "Superduperman" by Kurtzman and Wally Wood where Superduperman and Captain Marbles vy for the public's attention while they tear down all the buildings around them.

What's funny and so important about this book to me now is that at every age, I've gotten something out of it. Initially, I was just amazed that I was one of the rare few kids my age who had ever read the first Superman and Batman stories, and that Captain Marvel character was mighty interesting as well. A little older, and I duge Plastic-Man, the Pogo and Mad strips. By the time I was 15, I discovered the work of Bernard Krigstein, in the form of the incredible "Master Race," still one of the most stunning comics I have ever read. At 20, I read the book front to back, forcing myself through a few stories that had been too boring the first seven times, discovering the war stories of Kurtzman.

Anyway. It gets me misty just thinking about it. I think it's still out of print, but it is the best survey of the first two decades of comic books you'll ever find. Pick one up if you can.

May 19:

What do you want, blood? Oh, I see, Don't look in the drawer.

I think a lot about the structure of comics -- number of panels per grid, page count, paper stock, color or black and white, the serialization, you name it. As a result, I have a favorite format, and it's kind of dorky. I love prestige-format miniseries. Each issue is long enough to tell a complete story while feeding into a bigger whole.

Prestige format works for me no matter what, and there have been some stunning one-shots using the form, including Batman and Houdini (worth it for the rare Mark Chiarello sequentials alone) and Lucifer: Nirvana, but it's when a major creator or group of creators get together to make something special for three or four issues (plenty to make a nice bound volume later on...), magic can happen.

Some of the earliest and still most successful books in this format were by Frank Miller. Both Ronin and Dark Knight Returns were prestige minis of four issues, adding up to nice, fat 200-page trades down the road. But Frank Miller gets a lot of praise and attention, so I'm going to focus my attention elsewhere, to all the rest.

I already mentioned Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, but it bears repeating. Still the definitive work with the character outside of O'Neil and Adams.

Another gem from the late 1980s is Hawkworld by John Ostrander and Tim Truman, which reinvented the culture and society of Thanagar while also utterly reshaping the character of Hawkman himself. It got a little messy when they made it an on-going (there's good comics there, too, but the art isn't as good), but this mini is solid gold.

Getting a bit more contemporary, one of the finest things published in the 1990s regardless of genre, character or company is the Dr. Mid-Nite miniseries by Matt Wagner and John K. Snyder III. Though I was unfamiliar with both creators at the time of the series' publication, I learned better over time. Their new character is a revisionist heir much like Jack Knight, but the premise, city and artwork make it stand alone. I would still love to read an ongoing series from Wagner with this character some day. Pieter Cross rules.

From IDW, and much more recently, is Smoke by Alex de Campi and Igor Kordey. I've known and interacted with de Campi on message boards for years, and this was her first major work (though the Commercial Suicide anthologies are pretty hilarious). It's a wonderfully paranoid future world of assassins, manipulation and malice. Gorgeous artwork and a suitably V for Vendetta and Invisibles vibe. Absolutely lovely.

And most recently is Batman: Year 100, which I still don't have the fourth issue for. When I do, I'm sure it will be high on the overall list. All that, and no ads in any of them. That's comics to me. Not the high price of an original graphic novel (especially those inflated hardcovers from DC), but an enduring format that I can put on my bookshelf.

Prestige is love.

May 20:

And that's how I got my teeth so white. Greg?

Going off of last night's format discussion, I want to talk about annuals. When I was a teenager, the most affordable way for me to get a complete comics story was to pick up an annual, usually from DC. What's interesting is that I chose to start reading them during a particularly bizarre period of time, which featured such strange concepts as an all-pulp year or an all Year One year (some of the Batman comics struggled to make that work -- the Riddler one was really good though), and even the terribly ill-advised Legends of the Dead Earth season.

But as gimmicky as annuals were in that era (culminating with JLApe), virtually each over-sized and dense issue included a complete story for the price of two comics that were likely to each contain an eighteenth of a finished tale. As such, I flocked to them. I want to discuss just one, the best annual I have ever read. (At least from the extremely dodgy period in comics history where I paid attention to them).

This issue of the Flash came during the misguided Legends of a Dead Earth period, which brought such gems as "hey, a bunch of guys who kind of act like Superman" and "Impulse, but as a Jedi." This was the only one released that year that really used the general premise of the figures of the DC Earth dispersing away to far points of the galaxy after an ecological disaster, and what happened to their descendents after. (The Starman issue was pretty good, but it was a total cheat -- just the Shade talking about Starmen of the past. It was smart on Robinson's part, but it wasn't in the spirit of things).

In this issue, written by noted comics editor Peter Tomasi (whose only other writing credit I believe was the recent and excellent prestige mini "Light Brigade) and illustrated by J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray (Two years before they did Chase, let alone Promethea), opens on a planet covered in ice. After receiving a costume and some history about the Flash years ago from a mysterious stranger (It's J'onn J'onzz), a cult of the lightning is formed. Two brothers are high in the mountains to bury their father, who had been thought to be the chosen one who would one day break through the snow with the power of the lightning (it's a little cheesy, but the religious iconography is great, as is the art).

While burying their father, the two brothers are struck by lightning. The one who is a non-believer in the legends, of course, receives the power of the Flash and is rendered unconscious. His zealous brother is aged and injured by the strike, but crafty enough to imprison his older brother in a device that uses his incredible speed to power a green utopia. What happens from there is an intriguing exploration of free will, self-sacrifice and utilitarianism.

What a comic. Check it out in your local quarter bins...

May 21:

Who am I?

This is another question of format (and being 20-30 minutes late) -- the out-of-place indie superhero miniseries. I'll keep this short and simple -- every once in awhile, DC Comics brings out a short series totally opposed to their overall sensibilities and obviously meant for another imprint, either Wildstorm or Vertigo. While some of these series aren't worth tracking down (Big Daddy Danger and Forever Maelstrom don't leap to mind if you know what I'm saying), others are absolutely worth your time.

For ease of use, I'll restrict this to Enginehead, a glorious six-issue mini by Joe Kelly and Ted McKeever published a couple of years back. Originally set for eight issues before woeful ordering cut it down further, the book tells the story of a new superhero forged from six different mechanical superheroes, or superhumans with major mechanical connections. At the last minute, one of them chickens out, and a supervillain, Jackhammer is substituted. Hilarity (and mature themes and ultraviolence) ensues.

The character of Enginehead becomes dominated by the former Jackhammer. he can see how the world works, and sees the flaws in life and the universe. And he doesn't do much about it. Instead, he castrates a pedophile friend of his (I SWEAR), rebuilds his body and heads to a strip club with his robot monkey pal. This so should have come out from Vertigo, but I appreciate the effort to keep it firmly in the DCU. It's a nutty robot book unlike anything since Automatic Kafka, and McKeever's art is a delight. Check it out in quarter bins everywhere.

May 22:

Hmm...feels like it's 'real killer' size.

I was just barely back into comics at the time, working as an assistant to an assistant editor at a campus weekly, when it came in the mail. The new comics store in town (those clever bastards!) had sent along a review copy of the first collection of a local comics author -- Brian Azzarello, at this point an unknown quantity to me. I asked around the office, and no one else wanted it. Two co-workers had read it for a class, and they were discussing the use of language, talking about how the assigning professor had told them to read the story as ethnography.

I had to read this goddamn comic.

And I wasn't blown away initially. The first story, introducing Dizzy, is not as tight as the series is on a regular basis now that it's in the swing of things. Dave Johnson's covers hadn't graduated from eye-candy to manna from heaven yet. Azzarello was finding his legs as a writer.

Two years pass. I'm living in New York. It's a cold night in lower Manhattan. I stumble into the mediocre Chameleon Comics. I spin the rack of trade paperbacks. My eyes set on Hang Up on the Hang Low, volume 3 of 100 Bullets. I see the Eisner Award hype. I bite. I find an amazing story with the best covers I've ever seen in a comic. I kept trying not to get hooked, but I kept going in deeper. The plot grew more paranoid, the characters more hopeless and sadistic. It just became better and better.

Since I've been back into comics, 100 Bullets has been the best ongoing series coming out monthly. It's also been the best series in trades, and if another viable format for comics existed right now, it would be the best in that format, too.

I can't even explain why. It just is. And you need to read the first three trades to start to get it. Even then, you might not love it until the baseball issue in the fourth trade. But it's always worth your patience, and it will be a rare day when you guess the twists ahead. Just hang on for dear life.

May 23:

There's no news yet, whether I'll ever be stopped.

Ugh...this has been a brutal day at work. I just got home, and I've been gone since eight this morning. So instead of writing too much, let me just say that Leinil Francis Yu is amazing. I'll see you in 24.

May 24: Thank you, Albany! We are STYX!

And now, a very special Pete Mortensen Challenge presentation of: Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness -- LIVE AND LOUD!

For the next however many minutes it takes, I will read the all-new all-third volume of All-Scott Pilgrim, posting my reactions to moments throughout the comic. It will be zen-like. Enjoy.

Inside cover: Ramona! With Bread! Good start.

Copyright pages: Wonderful audience reactions. I love how every inch of each book in this series is used for storytelling.

After the show: SAVE POINT!

Backstage: I've kissed the lips that kissed you! BIONIC ARM!

Scott on the ground is sad. And true.

Neil and Knives at Tim Hortons. YES.

That's it! That is it, you cocky cock! You'll pay for your crimes against humanity!

The cleaning lady... cleans up... dust. She dusts. And she has weekends off, so... Monday, right?

I love Todd. He is amazing. Vegan Academy rules.

The flashbacks with N.V. are even better than I was hoping for.

And the negotiations between Ramona and Wallace are outstanding. Dipping sauce bitch. YES.

Falling asleep standing up in the rain against your own front door is a rough way to go down.

Bomberman IS 25 percent less fun with only three players. That's a science fact.

The origin of Scott and Wallace is touching.

It's the true sign of any great friendship when your friends will blame the rain if you wet your pants. Word.

Scott has an official Smashing Pumpkins Zero t-shirt! I could have had that shirt, but I bought a different one instead. It's kind of an ugly shirt, and my parents were pissed that I borrowed the money for it from a friend. They made me pay him back immediately.


O'Malley is really changing up his game. I love it.


Kim, you're a hell of a catch.

(awkward adolescent slobbering)

[soundtrack: Architecture in Helsinki, "In Case We Die."]

Chibi-Kim is hilarious. My memory gets more like Scott's by the day.

Frail and Bedazzled is the best obscure Smashing Pumpkins song ever.

"I don't know the meaning of the word." (He really doesn't).

Don't listen to her, Scott. She knows things.

The rise and fall of Kid Chameleon...god, who hasn't been there.

An evil ring from the future. About time, too.

Everyone is bitches, yeah.

Scrapbooking! The return of Crash and the Boys!

Is this a concert played entirely with Hulk hands?

That's ridiculous! Give the guy a chance! Apparently he's half-decent!

Large hammer +2 against girls.


Man, I can't believe this is better than volume 2, but it is. Damn.

Guy in a suit purchased at Value Village.

Scott's song for Envy is just "Angie" by the Rolling Stones! HILARIOUS!

Envy's weakness revealed! This is a work of genius. I'm totally getting drunk before I read it the next time.

Whose are they? The panties on your head!

I would never have guessed Todd's weak point.

I need some kind of...like...last minute, poorly set-up deus ex machina...

I have to get myself a de-veganizing ray.

Here's to the future, indeed. TOTALLY worth the wait.

BONUS COMIC! With KING HIPPO! And Howard Phillips!

Flowchart! Try Wiley Quixote, Wallace!

And...scene. Good night, everyone.

May 25:

I have four of these to do today to get caught up, so they'll be briefer (more Ash-style, in other words wink.gif)

Up first is Loveless by Brian Azzarello and Marcelo Frusin. I bought the first trade, "A Kin of Homecoming," on Wednesday, and it absolutely confirmed to me how great Azzarello is on a vicious, nasty story about people pushed to their limits. This holds true pretty much always, except in his often awkward superhero work. But this is gold. Savagery, gunplay, extreme violence, the reconstruction, all of it.

As these issues were coming out one at a time, a lot of people complained that the series was unclear in what it was doing. There's truth to that, sure, but this is also really tightly plotted and innovatively staged. Azzarello and Frusin don't offer any help in deciphering the more complex scenes, such as the flashbacks that simultaneously appear in the same panels with the live action. All in one large stretch, the plot is much more clear, and the conflicts to come are big and exciting. I cannot wait for the next volume of this series to drop.

May 26:

Next Wave has been getting a ton of love lately for taking a ton of unused Marvel concepts and characters, mixing them into a ludicrous premise and pumping out Warren Ellis's best cover version of Sharknife. It doesn't deserve quite this level of attention. Don't get me wrong, it's fine. But it's also not as insulting as a lot of people say it is, nor is it quite as much fun and definitely not as innovative as its fans claim.

If you want a good series playing in abandoned Marvel concepts, look no further than Livewires, an amazing miniseries from Adam Warren (the other Warren in comics) and Rick Mays released last year. The whole thing is collected into one incredibly cheap digest that packs more story per page than just about anything I've ever read (the sole caveat on the digest format here is that when Warren uses really small captions for head communications, it can get tough to read).

Basically, the series picks up inside a Hum-Vee in the middle of a black ops maneuver as a new mech, Stem Cell, makes up in the back seat. From there, it's no stopping, with assaults on the Real AIM, pheromone attacks, flesh-eating, nanite revival and the greatest repurposing of a Nick FuryL Agent of SHIELD concept EVER.

Trust me, my mecha. Well worth your time.

May 27:

Trust me, Franky, stay away from old lady Callahan's cream corn racket. It's just not worth it.

Eric Powell's The Goon is the rare comic series that I was in love with as soon as I saw the first issue on the racks. I was about to graduate college, I'd had the comics resurgence of a lifetime in the previous two years and I hungered for something new. I hungered for zombie flesh! OK, I didn't, but Buzzard does. Whatever, buy the first Dark Horse issue, you'll see.

What makes this series superior to any number of jokey zombie comics on the market these days? Eric Powell. The man's artwork is out of this world (and continues to evolve, too. Check the change from the third trade to the fourth one), and he has an ear for dialogue and mind for mayhem unparalleled in comics today. Hell, for creating the character of Spider alone, he would have my undying devotion. But we also have the reverse-zombie Buzzard, Franky, Dr. Heironymous Alloy, the Zombie Priest and the Goon himself.

Where to start on this series is always hard to pin down. My vote remains at the start of Volume 2, Heaps of Ruination, which is where the Dark Horse series picked up. The earlier volumes, particularly the one right before, Nothing But Misery, are well worth your time, but you might read one of those and get the idea that the series doesn't live up to the hype. It actually does, just a bit further on.

May 28:

What do you do when the greatest battle in history is over? You drink like a fish. And tell the story to every nearby sucker in the damn bar. So opens Captain Hare Borne and the Space Squadron, a stunningly beautiful web (and, occasonally, print) comic by Alex Thomas, a med student and former next-door neighbor of mine in college.


The series is the product of conflict. As Alex went through college, he crafted a series called Bottom of the Food Chain, which chronicled the life of his anthromorphized stand-in, Rocky the Beagle, as he tried to keep up in classes, win the girl and all the rest. What many didn't realize is that Alex was borrowing from life more closely than was thought. Some of the AIM transcripts between Rocky and Suzanne were lifted directly from his own chat activity, and the comic predicted the future in many ways. But that's all personal.

What matters is that Alex got past all of that drama, and was suddenly faced with med school and no great purpose. So begins Hare Borne, which has taken its hero, over the course of 41 pages thus far, from the academy to the home of the Karns and now to the mysterious snake people. The art is awesome (and getting better), and the colors from our own James T bring it up to another level.

May 29: Well, great. I just broke my laptop's power cord. AWESOME. This might be the last PMC until I can find another way to charge my computer's battery.

This one's courtesy of Ken Kneisel. I adore Love and Rockets, but I'm behind on owning much except for the massive Locas hardcover (though I've read Palomar, thanks to a great library system a long time ago). The series, begun in 1981 by Los Bros. Hernandez (Xaime, Gilbert and Mario) and published by Fantagraphics ever since, largely follows two major plotlines: Gilbert's heroine Luba and Xaime's Locas, Maggie and Hopey, two young punks from Huerta, a fictional city in Southern California better known as Hoppers. Los Bros are natives of Oxnard, a costal city near Ventura.

Perla (Maggie) Chascarillo is again at a crossroads in Ghost of Hoppers, the most recent volume from Xaime Hernandez in the long-running Locas saga from the pages of Love and Rockets. As usual Maggie's let a new romance into her life, and as usual, it's unfilling without Hopey at her side. Xaime's art is as brilliant as ever, continuing to meld the Archie aesthetic with the pain of real life. As ever, his characters are rich and troubled, never quite triumphing or allowing themselves to love.

In this volume in particular, Xaime has Maggie meditate on her own past and on the history in her hometown that continues to haunt her into the present. A quite literal exorcism is enacted, and maybe the curse of Izzy is lifted. Or perhaps not. What matters is this -- black dogs are omens of doom. All you can do is walk alongside them. You're just an old graveyard ghost, anyway.

The continuing story of Maggie and Hopey (though they spend so little time in the present together it generally feels like twin sagas apart) is one of the finest to ever grace comics, and Hernandez shows little sign of slowing down. Well worth your time.

May 30:

Everybody loves Animal Man. That's basically a given. The most hardened anti-Morrisonites sing his praises when talking his first American on-going series. Well, I'm here to talk about Animal Man, but this is not about those first 26 issues. This is about when the series got really interesting.

In July 1992, just before DC spun its mature readers comics under the umbrella of Vertigo (and made Green Arrow all-ages; you haven't lived until you've read an early GA ongoing with Oliver Queen saying shit eight times in a row. It was MAX before MAX), Jamie Delano and Steve Pugh took over Animal Man. The series had been languishing since the departure of its founding creative team, though Peter Milligan did a decent job for one arc, and Tom Veitch kept the series going, ably assisted by Steve Dillon.

Over the course of Delano's 29 issues on the title (with Pugh on most of them and some great fill-ins, including Peter Snejbjerg), the character of Buddy Baker is reinvented again, nearly as radically as the first time he got reinvented. For one thing, he gets killed in the first issue. But like Swamp Thing's "Anatomy Lesson" before it, the spirit of Animal Man regroups and learns of the Red, the violent, animal opposition to the Green.

I haven't read all of this run, by any stretch -- it's closer to the neighborhood of seven of the 29 issues (though I have about 12 waiting at home -- thanks, Ryan Higgins!) -- but the quality of this title is tremendous. Pugh is drawing out of his mind, a fusion of Pugh and Cassaday that is unmatched, and then Buddy and Maxine found a cult, and...yeah. This is outstanding comics -- and incredibly cheap. The run ends at 79. Go digging.

May 31:

OK, now take off your shirt... and the pants.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, we reach the end of one era and approach the start of a new one. When the incomparable James Sime threw down the gauntlet, I gladly picked it up, ready to fight for my honor as a comics fan. Or rather, my honor as not just bitching about comics 24/7. To be honest, this has been harder than I expected. Not because I don't have dozens of comcis that I totally love, but because I was trying really hard to reach outside my comfort zone and the eras and creators I'm most familiar with.

Also that whole 24-hour deadline thing. There was that.

What have we learned?

• Comics ain't easy. Sometimes you have to buy 120 10-cent comcis to find some new talent you're way into.
• It's actually easy to be positive about comics when you muzzle yourself.
• Waiting for the trade makes comics less interesting on a day-to-day basis, but holding out for the Loveless trade was the right decision.
• Ash has top-secret plans for lots of things. His last post will probably be more interesting than this one. Also: More stastically accurate.
• At the end of the day, it's just about making yourself happy.

With these things in mind (Oh, keep them in mind), I give you the 31st and final entry in the Pete Mortensen Challenge 2006. I'm just going to choose a comic book that makes me happy -- and would totally embarrass me in any other context. That's right, it's post-Zero Hour Superman titles! All of them!

I spend a lot of time mocking pouches and cables on costumes. Deep down, I love them. Comics have never in the history of the world been more inappropriately over the top as this run, which I can't help but associate with Dan Jurgens. Superman's hair got long, random villains from his past appeared out of nowhere, every story had 19 parts over four different titles, one of which was Anarky for some reason. Glorious. It was glorious. And I'm honestly not being sarcastic about this. If the Superman titles hadn't been this tightly connected, I never would have had a reason to make it to the local comic shop every Wednesday. Come hell or highwater, there wold be a Superman title that would reveal another 1/87th of an ongoing mystery involving Superman's other corpse, or a some homeless guy carving a bloody Superman shield in his forehead for some reason. Except those horrible skip weeks, which DC eliminated thanks to the Superman: Man of Tomorrow Quarterly.

And look at Conduit. SO. MUSCULAR. Feel his coils flex!

A NINJA! Every single issue, a mysterious stranger would appear out of nowhere and probably kill Superman for awhile, or set fire to Jimmy Olsen, or promote Lois Lane to be a TV reporter with a bitchin' Camaro.

Seriously, these are under-rated comics. I think comics as a whole are making a move toward embracing their roots again, getting dumb and powerful and funny. Some would credit Image comics' resurgence. I credit Jurgens, for being proud of being stupid. We all need that in our lives. Every last one of us.

Oh no, he didn't! Thank God for 52. It's the only place I can find a comics story that never stops.