Too serious about comics.

The Alternate Cover Comics Podcast – Episode 13 (March 2014)

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altcover13We are back! Finally! Hopefully you’ve had long enough to listen to our mammoth end-of-2013 special by now, so it’s about time for us to regroup and review the new Daredevil #1, along with a more general discussion of some of the recent All New Marvel Now! launches. We also, in the wake of James starting to do the whole parenting thing, have a chat about what comics we think we’d give to our firstborns, hypothetical or otherwise. And the Obsessed With Marvel quiz makes a return in possibly its longest instalment yet, as Seb takes on Rhys in an attempt to finally win one.

And if you’re wondering why the between-section stings are different this time around, it’s because I recently bought Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Superhero for the first time, and so have decided to inflict bits of it on you all. YOU’RE WELCOME.

As ever, you can download the MP3 directly here, listen to the episode in your browser with the player below, or get it for your preferred player via our iTunes and standard RSS feeds.

Seb Patrick | 25th March, 2014

The Alternate Cover Comics Podcast – Episode 12 (December 2013)

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altcover2013awardsTo celebrate the special occasioning of the end of 2013, we present the first ever Alternate Cover End-of-Year Awards! Which basically means that instead of doing an ordinary episode, we (Seb, James and Rhys) went to a central London pub in mid-December with a bunch of our comics-reading chums and sat around talking for nearly three hours. So please extend a hearty welcome to our guests Alex HernHazel RobinsonMichael Leader and Abigail Brady, who joined us to nominate their own picks for the most discussion-worthy titles of 2013.

Yes, it is a bit of a long episode, even with a few of the more digressionary sections chopped out – but we think it’s mostly entertaining chat, despite getting a bit more drunk and loud towards the end, so hopefully you will too. If you like your podcasts with a backing track, meanwhile, then you’re in luck (who’d have thought a pub would have background noise?) – so you can look forward to hearing the likes of Aretha Franklin, Shakin’ Stevens, Echo and the Bunnymen and the Arcade Fire underscoring our yammering. But, er, we haven’t got a PRS license for this podcast or anything, so don’t tell anyone.

Finally, just one more bit of housekeeping: in discussing Superior Spider-Man, I (Seb) managed to list most of the artists who’ve worked on the series, but forgot (I’m blaming beer) to mention Ryan Stegman, the series’ main artist. So, er, sorry about that, Ryan, but rest assured you’re one of the biggest reasons the series is excellent!

You can download the MP3 directly here, listen to the episode in your browser via the player below, or get it for your preferred player via our iTunes and RSS feeds. Hope you enjoy this unusual episode, and we’ll be back in the new year with some more conventional episodes. Although if this one goes down well, we might do some more group chats in the future, so do let us know what you reckon!

Seb Patrick | 31st December, 2013

Best Comic of 2013: Superior Spider-Man

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superiorspidermanOh, it WOULD be, wouldn’t it?

It’s probably not a huge surprise that Superior Spider-Man is getting this accolade from us. We’re both huge fans of the character and in previous years we’ve given nods to Amazing Spider-Man, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man and Spider-Men in our end of year lists. But when you consider that 12 months ago, Dan Slott killed Peter Parker and allowed the body of his greatest foe to usurp his life, shouldn’t we be upset? Shouldn’t we be angry? Shouldn’t we be joining those who think Dan Slott has gone too far and calling for his immediate removal?

Well, no. Because Superior Spider-Man is the most original, compelling and consistently brilliant storyline that the Spider-Man titles have seen in years. Whether rehabilitating forgotten 90s characters like Stunner, bringing back early ideas Lee/Ditko ideas like The Living Brain or finding a new and twisted take on existing foes like The Vulture, Slott has managed to create a Spider-Man comic that simultaneously revels in the character’s lore while forging a new one with every issue. The story of Octavius’ second chance is hugely compelling. We may hate him for what he’s done, but at the same time he’s trying to be better, and often facing people so much worse than him that it’s easy to know who to root for. It’s a superhero soap opera with all the classic tropes, and too few comics can do that in such a sincere manner without feeling dated or hokey.

And Peter Parker may not actually be appearing in the comic, but in very real a way this entire run is about him. In every decision Octavius makes that puts others at risk, in every victory he uses to further his image and agenda, in every moment where his confidence spills over into arrogance, you can’t help but think: Peter Parker would’ve done this differently. Where Peter felt he had to put the costume on to save lives, Octavius does it to prove a point: that he’s better than everyone else. He may be getting results now, but we know that it can’t last forever. Half of the fun of reading Superior Spider-Man is waiting for the slip-up that undoes him.

Of course, the entire run isn’t down to Slott alone. He’s had some top collaborators, too. Ryan Stegman has never been a bad artist, but his work on Superior Spider-Man is something else, cementing his place as one of the industry’s best. Chris Yost’s appearances as co-writer haven’t slowed the series down at all, and should the day come when Slott leaves the series, one can’t help but identify Yost as the natural successor. And, of course, editor Steve Wacker – now sadly outgoing following a promotion into Marvel’s animation – has had such a phenomenal output over the last few years that it’s impossible not to recognise his contribution. But ultimately, this is Slott’s baby. He masterminded the story and since its on his shoulders that the abuse inevitably comes to rest, so should the praise. In Superior Spider-Man, Slott has cemented himself as one of the character’s top writers, the equal of Roger Stern, J. M. DeMatteis and Gerry Conway.

You might argue that in a market where you’ve got books like Hawkeye, Daredevil and Young Avengers practically straining to out-innovate one another, Superior Spider-Man is just a little too traditional to be called the best book of the year. But here’s our take. It’s not the most surprising book. It’s not the most clever. It’s arguably not even the best-looking or best-written in a purely objective sense. But when it comes down to it, there’s no other superhero title we’d rather read each week, because through its combination of passion, plotting and execution, it’s managing to be the most difficult thing of all: impossible to put down.

Best Comics of 2013: Sex Criminals

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sexcriminalsSex Criminals, from that title and those covers alone, felt like a deliberate challenge. How to ask retailers for it with a straight face, or read it on your tablet on public transport without people moving a few seats away from you? How to tell people who haven’t read it that it’s one of the best comics of the year without them looking at you like Fredric Wertham was right all along?

Get past that hurdle, however, and here was something that was not only brilliant – but also utterly charming, in a delightful and surprising way. The better of Matt Fraction’s books, while full of character, have tended to have a wry sharpness to them – but Sex Criminals is unironically, honestly warm. And while Suzie and Jon might indeed technically be the “sex criminals” of the title – in that they use the near-unique abilities afforded to them by sex to commit a crime – they’re also two lovely, well-drawn and deeply human characters.

What’s more, despite the provocative title, the book’s approach to sex is actually refreshingly mature, especially for comics. The respective sexual histories of the characters are always looked at in terms of how they complement(ed) actual human relationships – and the sex itself is dealt with in a frank way, and as something to be enjoyed and celebrated, without a hint of grubbiness. Of course, there are elements of “fnarr” humour involved – how can there not be when at one point the characters watch a film called Hard-On Fink? – but the target is more often the unnecessary shame people place on sexuality, rather than sexuality itself.

As a comic itself, meanwhile, the series sees Fraction firmly in his Casanova/Hawkeye frame of mind (and incidentally, if you’re wondering whither the latter book in our list – we’ve left it out due to its placing last year and the fact that we’ve this other book by the writer as a runner up, but rest assured we loved it just as much in 2013 as 2012). That is, delighting in playing with the medium and form – from those relentlessly hilarious recap pages, to the fourth-wall-breaking “Fat Bottomed Girls” sequence in issue #3 (just about the best comics moment of the year, whether you believe the story it’s telling or think it was planned that way all along).

He’s aided in this by some astonishingly sure-footed visual storytelling by Chip Zdarsky – the cartoonist and humourist’s first major comics work proving something of a revelation. His style is still heavily cartoony, but with a huge amount of character expression and incidental detail that makes it a joy to read. Simply put, you wonder why it’s taken so long for someone to give him a book like this.

At a time when so many comics are being wilfully dark or serious, perhaps the greatest achievement of Sex Criminals is to be a silly and entertaining, yet intelligent and meaningful, treatise on an area of human experience that’s all-too-frequently made to feel shameful or dirty or even brushed under the carpet altogether. And while we are actually talking about sex when we say that, we could just as easily be talking about comics, too.

Seb Patrick | 30th December, 2013

Best Comics of 2013: The Private Eye

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tpeye_01_smallNot content with writing Saga, one of the most universally-acclaimed comics around (and former Alternate Cover “Best Of” inductee), Brian K. Vaughan chose to give the medium another kick up the arse this year when he teamed with Marcos Martin to release The Private Eye, a noirish sci-fi tale set in a world where everyone has a secret identity and the Internet doesn’t exist.

But before we discuss the story, we have to discuss the form. The Private Eye is the first (and thus far only) release from Panel Syndicate, a digital-only publisher selling DRM-free comics. It was revolutionary enough for two of the industry’s top creators to be releasing a new and original work under that model, but the fact that they also went pay-what-you-like on it suggested that this was a serious attempt to find a new model for comics publishing, rather than a gimmick. It was, in no small way, hugely exciting, and may have been the catalyst for Image Comics to make their own store DRM-free, which they did just a few months ago. For committed digital readers like me, it’s been good to see. And with this much emphasis on the sales model, it helps that the actual comic is great too.

Fresh off his work on Amazing Spider-Man and Daredevil, Marcos Martin had been blowing readers away with his hugely imaginitive layouts, Ditko-esque figures and fluid linework. On The Private Eye, his layouts are more conventional, but it’s the level of imagination and detail that truly impresses – in a world where everyone is dressing as someone or something else there’s no such thing as a background character, and Martin doesn’t shy away from drawing every character as if they could be the star. Meanwhile, Vaughan has taken a simple theme of personal privacy online and spun it into an original and unfamiliar world that could still somehow be our own, populated with new takes on established archetypes that make it feel like a fresh read rather than yet another detective story.

Not everything about the The Private Eye works straight away – the idea that the press can function as a police force doesn’t really make sense if you try to analyse the execution of it, and the mechanics of the technical collapse that fuelled the series are glossed over a little too conveniently – but you can’t fault its attempt to do something different, both with the form and with the genre. There are too few books around you can say that about, and even if it wasn’t doing that, The Private Eye would still deserve a spot on this list merely for being the first of its kind. Let’s hope it isn’t the last.

Best Comics of 2013: Sandman Overture

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sandmanovertureEven by our usual standards, it’s especially strange to include in our comics of the year a series that has only managed to put out one issue in 2013. But then, Sandman: Overture is hardly a usual comic – in fact, it’s downright exceptional.

Here, for example, was a comic that had to live up to some outrageously lofty expectations – the first issue of The Sandman since the series ended in 1996 (notwithstanding the Endless Nights hardcover or P. Craig Russell’s adaptation of The Dream Hunters), and one that has to break into the almost hermetically-sealed perfection of that original run. Anything less than utter genius from a new comic with this title by Neil Gaiman and JH Williams would be a huge disappointment.

And yet there were lingering doubts that the old magic could be recaptured. Gaiman has written some fantastic work in recent years, but not very much of it has been in comics, and Sandman was of such a distinct time in comics history that it wasn’t clear whether it could translate to the style of an era twenty-five years after its first issues.

So it’s largely because of the fact that it both lived up to those huge expectations, and dispelled those nagging doubts, that the first issue of Overture immediately stood out as one of the best comics of the year. Effortlessly sliding back into the familiar and comfortable setting and characters, it read like Gaiman was picking up where he left off with issue #75 (aside from the plot being set a little while prior to issue #1, of course) – but by the same token was a dazzling example of confident, high-class modern-day comic book storytelling.

Much of this, it’s clear, is down to the presence of Williams – one of arguably a handful of artists currently working who could possibly live up to the ideal of working on Sandman. Indeed, some of that first issue’s most inspired moments feel more the work of the artist than the writer – bringing his signature style to double-page spreads like the astonishing Corinthian sequence, and even managing to convey the somewhat abstract notion of Destiny’s book in a way that made arguably more sense than any of the original series’ artists had managed to.

And if it felt a little bit like a greatest hits tour – with gratuitous cameos from characters like Merv Pumpkinhead – the nostalgia was at least earned by the occasion. And what’s more, this feels (so far at least) like a missing story that was waiting to be told, rather than simply a cheap cash-grab – with some genuinely startling revelations about a mythology that previously we felt we’d learned all we could about.

Simply put, it feels incredibly good to have The Sandman back in the year 2013, and back at a level of quality we all remember it for. And that’s why, in only twenty-odd pages, it was comfortably one of the best comics of the year. The fact that 2014 actually promises several instalments of this is almost too joyous to contemplate.

Seb Patrick | 28th December, 2013

Best Comics of 2013: Change

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Change01Last year, the sheer nerve of Wild Children’s block-red, text-only cover demanded that I take the book from the shelf and buy eight dollars’ worth of comic even though it was by creators I’d never heard of. It was an impulse purchase, but one that rewarded me with a story that was intelligent and thought-provoking, but oddly sensual at the same time. Since then, Ales Kot has been my default answer to the question “Which creator is exciting you right now?”. It’s early in his comics career, but Kot has already proved a chameleonic writer with no two projects alike in spirit of execution. He’s even managed to earn his stripes by getting creative-differenced off a DC title (Suicide Squad) only a couple of issues into a much-hyped run.

Ales Kot’s current ongoing series, Zero, is a sci-fi espionage thriller with a rotating cast of artists that is at once brutal and cerebral. But when I think of the best comics I read in 2013, Zero is still only Kot’s second best work. That’s because I can think of few series more suited to me than the miniseries he began 2013 with: Change.

Change was written by Kot, drawn by Morgan Jeske, and almost defies any more specific description than that. You’d call it psychadelic and hallucinatory, and you’d be right, but it’s more carefully-crafted than such labels suggest. It stars a rapper, a screenwriter and a spaceman who are attempting to prevent a literal apocalypse in Los Angeles while dealing with their own existential nightmares. It’s tense, funny and nightmarish, powerfully surreal but utterly compelling in its narrative. It’s fantastic, not just because of Kot’s story – but because the creative team, from the artist to the colourist (Sloane Leong) to the letterer (Ed Brisson) is working in complete synchronicity, each adding their own element of tone, call-back or exposition. When a comic goes right, this is what it looks like.

In many ways, it’s a miracle that a story this dense, produced so collaboratively, is comprehensible at all. It’s the kind of project that can only happen by complete accident or by extreme design, and I wouldn’t like to speculate which one of those elements is at play here. Change is rare and brilliant, but also fragile in its complexity. I almost don’t want to pull at it too hard in case it falls apart. It’s not the sort of project that everyone’s going to love, but if you fall for it, you’ll fall hard. It’s all the things I want out of good art: it’s earnest but not serious, imaginitive but not goofy, self-aware but not self-conscious. You can probably pick a hundred books released this year that are structured more coherently or have a clearer point to make, but few of those will make you feel like Change does. Like the end of the world is coming and maybe this can stop it.

Best Comics of 2013: Young Avengers

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youngavengersIt’s fair to say that if you announce a new comic by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, we’re going to jump up and take notice. Unfortunately, this also means that if you announce a new comic by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, we’re going to have unrealistically stratospheric expectations for it. Unfair? Perhaps, but if you’re going to have the temerity to produce Phonogram, then that’s the curse you have to bear in return.

So, did Young Avengers live up to the burden of being a new GillenMcKelvie book? Not quite. Was it still a great comic? Yes. Was it one of the best of the year? Just about, but to which extent is largely dependent on just how much you were able to engage with the ongoing story. And if you happened not to care about Billy and Teddy’s relationship (sorry, Tumblr, but I couldn’t give a monkey’s), or couldn’t quite click with Mother as a strong enough villain for a thirteen-issue long story, then there might well have been times where this didn’t feel like the slam-dunk-brilliant series it could have been.

But a GillenMcKelvie comic is simply incapable of existing without at the very least flashes of inspired genius – and there were enough of these throughout the run that hinted at a more joyous and freewheeling series living just underneath the surface of having to set out to appeal to fans of Allan Heinberg’s original and (in this correspondent’s opinion) somewhat overrated run with the characters. Double-page spreads such as the “Being a superhero is amazing” sequence or the utterly stunning Noh-Varr “airplane diagram” gag, and other sequences like the Instagram montage, showed a writer-artist (and, come to that, colouring and production and editorial) team dedicated to pushing the envelope of comics storytelling for nothing other than the sheer joy of doing so. It was exactly the kind of exuberance we hoped for from a book called Young Avengers made by these people, and it’s only a shame there wasn’t a little more of it.

Whenever the character work was allowed to extend to the newer members of the team, however, the book felt truly on song – whether that be the Noh-Varr and Kate romance, the teasing hints into the character and background of Miss America (The Sensational Character Find of 2013? Almost definitely), or the continuation of the Journey Into Mystery-initiated Kid Loki story (surely one of the best long-form character stories in recent comics history). Any or all of these storylines could have made for a great series of their own – but in Young Avengers they found themselves jostling for attention just a little too uncomfortably.

In truth, though, it’s far easier to nitpick at something, or for it to come across as a disappointment, when you already have those unrealistically high expectations. Young Avengers was, for the most part, a thrilling, funny and energetic series, with often astonishing art from someone who’s already there or thereabouts at the top of the game but continues to get better anyway. By any normal standards it was at the high end of a very strong crop of books put out by Marvel this year – and after its imminent ending, it’ll be missed as much as the next Gillen and McKelvie project (whether that be Phonogram 3 or something else inbetween) is keenly anticipated.

Seb Patrick | 26th December, 2013

Best Comics of 2013: Pretty Deadly

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prettydeadly-01Over the last year or two, Image Comics has transformed itself. Originally the home for artist-driven trash and later the place where indie up-and-comers cut their teeth, it’s recently become the home of some of the mainstream’s most exciting series from some of the industry’s top talent. You could fill a best of 2013 list with Image books alone and it wouldn’t look like you’d tried *that* hard to ignore the big two. We could point to any number of series released this year that show just how original Image has become, but we keep coming back to this one as demanding special attention: Pretty Deadly, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios and Jordie Bellaire.

Notionally, Pretty Deadly is the story of “Death’s Daughter”, an old west gunslinger named Ginny who rides a horse made of smoke and has a skull tattooed on her face. In execution, it’s a dark myth that marries Eastern storytelling with Western imagery. Narrated by a rabbit and a butterfly, it’s fair to say it’s not afraid to be ambitious and unconventional.

The ambition is probably what makes the book so compelling. In an era where many creator-owned titles are all about the high concept, Pretty Deadly is just as concerned about the poetry of its story. It’s as much mood as mechanics. You can imagine anyone turning the high concept of Pretty Deadly into a middling book ripe for adaptation into a shitty movie, but DeConnick and Rios have created something that’s powerfully, definitively, inseparably for the comics medium. Good luck to any screenwriter trying to wring three acts out of this.

It certainly helps to have an artist like Rios on board, a woman whose presence almost instantly raises the quality of a series (or have you forgotten that Spider-Island: Cloak and Dagger was one of the best looking books of 2011?) It’s hard to imagine how Pretty Deadly could work under anyone else. It needs the airy, expressive and ethereal visuals that Rios can provide, but it also needs her grit and texture. There’s a strong manga influence in the title, and a lot of that stems from Rios’ linework.

One caveat is that it’s fair to say that Pretty Deadly isn’t the easiest of reads. It’s complex and dreamlike and doesn’t want to patronise its readers. If you’ve ever accused a book of pretension for attempting to be lyrical or subtle or intentionally ambiguous, you’ll find all that here, and more. But the fact is that it looks and reads unlike anything else in the medium, and just three issues in it’s got the rare distinction of being at the bottom of my pile every time there’s a new issue released. Not because I want to put off reading it, but because I want to make sure I can give it the time and concentration it deserves. I don’t know about you, but that, to me, is what says great work.

 

Best Comics of 2013: All-New X-Men

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anxmThere was understandable trepidation when Brian Michael Bendis was announced as being the new head honcho of the X-Men franchise. Even if you’re a fan of his work (and I’m very definitely that), it’s fair to say that his weaker efforts have genuinely coincided with the times he’s been on team superhero books – for whatever reason, he just hasn’t been able to make them work. What’s more, the premises of the two X-books he was taking over were each controversial in their own way – having Cyclops lead what is essentially “the baddies” in Uncanny X-Men, while having the original X-Men jump forwards from the past into the present day in All-New.

While the merits (or otherwise) of Uncanny remain a debated question, however (even among the Alternate Cover team, but check out our podcasts for more on that), it’s fair to say that despite being viewed with suspicion by many in comics in advance of its launch, All-New  has been something of a success. It’s certainly the best team book that Bendis has written, something that can probably be attributed to the fact that its setup – and a double-shipping schedule that means it’s already put out twenty issues since its launch last November – is actually a pretty good vehicle for what he’s good at: which is to say, lots of scenes of characters talking to each other in an entertaining fashion, and the odd “Whoa!” moment.

Whether it works for you will, of course, depend on whether you buy into the premise – as someone with a fond regard for the original X-Men characters who by the same token has never been especially wedded to any of the other pre-Morrison lineups, though, it suits me just fine – although even in doing that, one has to overlook what its probably the book’s biggest flaw. It simply doesn’t make sense, given the Marvel Universe’s floating timeline, to have a group of characters who can’t be from any further than about ten or fifteen years ago show up in the present day and be baffled by the concept of bottled water.

And yet this, or the fact that Emma Frost doesn’t talk with the right accent, or the fact that there’s not actually been that much plot, or the fact that it’s lost a little momentum in the fallout from Battle of the Atom, are things that it’s easy to overlook when a comic is so terrifically entertaining as this. It’s breezy, it’s funny, it features career-best art from Stuart Immonen (the kind of artist for whom “career best” means they’re hitting another level entirely from most mortal comics artists) – and it is, quite simply, the kind of comic that jumps out of the read pile each time it comes out. Bendis finally seems to have hit upon a group character dynamic that he can work with, undoubtedly helped by the fact that it’s such a familiar group dynamic that he can play with its established tropes a little – and this version of Jean, in particular, makes for a fascinating addition to the present-day Marvel universe.

Indeed, as with Superior Spider-Man (Marvel’s other current “man, this really shouldn’t have worked but somehow kind of does really well” concept, but we’ll come to that later), it’s a setup that you know can’t last beyond a particular point, yet the way it’s been done you hope that certain elements (in this case the presence of Jean) are allowed to continue beyond its natural end-point. Comics that surprise you (in a nice way) are definitely Marvel’s stock-in-trade at the moment, and even a book with their highest-profile set of characters, written by one of their highest-profile creators, has managed to do just that.

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