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Pageturn: Comics with a Smile

By | April 15th, 2020
Posted in Columns | % Comments

Hey you! Have you ever wanted to read some different comics? Hopefully! Do you have a friend who you are always trying to get into comics? Yeah, you probably have 20! Are you stuck in your home looking for something to distract you so you stop refreshing Twitter and absorbing this shitty, scary world? Well aren’t you in luck! I’ve got some books to show you, happy books! Everyone’s on Animal Crossing right now, finding joy in life is in vogue , people are over Black Mirror, all the emo bands had their concerts cancelled, this is it, we’re in the age of optimism!

Some Rules before we start:
1. Fuck rules, we’re all sick to shit of rules, I’m gonna talk about whatever the fuck I want and you’re gonna read it, what are you gonna do? Go outside instead? Go to work??? Go consume one of the million other pieces of entertainment at your disposal (oh wait, fuck)
2. No Batman

Apocalyptigirl: An Aria for the End Times

Alright, when I put this list together I realised it’s almost entirely super popular comics, so I thought I’d put my best foot forward and give you the one book you maybe haven’t heard of first. “Apocalyptigirl: An Aria for the End Times” by Andrew Maclean is a bundle of joy that brings a kind of optimism to the page that I thought died with Flash Gordon. The book follows Aria as she tries to breathe life back into a crumbling world and the incredible machines society left behind.

Maclean’s stories feel really effortlessly light-hearted, like the stories never seem to be pushing you towards a certain chirpiness, but they all feel infectiously upbeat anyway, maybe it’s because it serenades you. Or maybe I’m just at my happiest when a mech-suit is around. I guess, “Apocalyptigirl” is an end of the world story that doesn’t dwell on the end of the world, it just takes you for a ride and shows you that there’s always a reason to keep on keeping on.

There’s a lot to like about single creator comics, a lot of modern comics have really protracted plots that just don’t fit in 20 pages that well, but solo creators seem a lot more willing to tell something fun and decompressed, give their work some room to breath. The art here deserves it too, everything feels really fluid and quick, like Adventure Time covered in vaseline (don’t think about that too hard). All the fights and movements are frenetic, which comes as a surprise when you compare it to Maclean’s other book “Head Lopper” where all the characters are massive beefcakes and severed heads (a notoriously, un-mobile crowd). If you read “Apocalyptigirl” there’s always going to be a couple pages that stick with you, maybe just come back to them when you need a boost, the End Times are always a comfortable place to be.

Grab it if you like:
-Lighthearted genre fiction
-Singular visions
-Sci-fi action

If you like “Apocalyptigirl: An Aria for the End Times” read:
-“Headlopper” by Andrew Maclean
-“Amazing Screw On Head” by Mike Mignola
-“Murder Falcon” by Daniel Warren Johnson


Hawkeye is kinda like Marvel’s answer to Aquaman, he’s an easily dismissed one-trick character who’s known better as a piece of a team than as an individual hero (plus they both look great with beards but always end up tragically clean-shaven). The main difference is that instead of talking to fish he can only talk to regular people, and even then if he speaks for longer than 3 speech bubbles he’s guaranteed to get beat up. He’s like if Green Arrow got a Youtube trick-shot compilation rather than a TV Series. But that’s the thing about this supposedly one-note heroes, there’s always something special about them under the surface, Aquaman is a king and the richest man on Earth, Green Arrow has this inspiring story of justice and perseverance. Hawkeye’s got that same depth to him, he’s so much more intricate than you can imagine, I mean, he’s got a dog!

That was probably too mean, Hawkeye is a beautiful boy who tries his hardest at everything he does. The breakout series by Matt Fraction and David Aja follows Clint Barton in his free time between Avenger-ing as he does favours for the supportive residents of his apartment block and trains up Kate Bishop, the All-New Hawkeye. This book has so much heart, and I feel like you can see that in how all the characters are jerks in their own special way. They all care so deeply about something that the focus on it to the detriment of everything else. Clint cares about his neighbours in a way that speaks to his own insecurities about living in uncertain situations, Kate’s constantly trying to prove she’s more than a trust-fund kid so when she sees Clint wasting his potential she can’t take it, the tracksuit guys really fucking love nikes and they’ll do anything to get the money for more. All compelling motivations. It’s just a really eccentric read that spends about as long in Clint’s kitchen as it does in car chases or shoot outs, and never has a kitchen been as well illustrated as this.

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Every issue that Aja does has this fun graphic design feel that clashes really nicely with the human mess that is Clint Barton. Aja uses this patchwork feel to get really experimental too, folding unexpected perspectives, stilted page layouts and perfect character beats that are exemplified over and over by crackshot colorist Matt Hollingsworth and luxurious letter Chris Elipoulos.

You can collect the whole thing in two books and read the whole saga of Kate Bishop, Lucky the Pizza Dog and Clint’s perpetual divorce in one perfect afternoon. Hawkeye might just be a screw-up with a bow and arrow, but you can’t say he doesn’t try.

Grab it if you Like:
-Simple, fun dialogue
-Stories about the ordinarily extraordinary
-Creative art and layouts

If you like “Hawkeye” read:
-“Sex Criminals” by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
-“The Weatherman” by Jody LeHeup and Nathan Fox
-“4 Kids Walk Into a Bank” by Matthew Rosenberg and Tyler Boss

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

If you’ve known me personally for any amount of time, odds are I’ve tried to get you to read “Squirrel Girl.” It was the biggest comic in my life for pretty much the entire time that it was publishing. The book is such an obvious passion project. The way writer Ryan North has sculpted Squirrel Girl into this multi-faceted personality is so impressive; he basically took a character who’s been a punchline for her entire history and somehow flipped it all around, Squirrel Girl is still funny, funnier than pretty much any comic at Marvel, but now she’s laughing along with her readers. It’s like a reverse-”Hawkeye,” Matt Fraction leaned into the stereotype, Ryan North recontextualised it. Artists Erica Henderson and Derek Charm have both been great at prioritising personality over spectacle, pouring endless wit and charm (oh look, an accidental pun) into every character beat, rather than just trying to draw the best kicks and explosions.

The book manages to play around with its context really wittily, holding a dialogue with the reader without kicking down the fourth wall. Little author’s notes at the bottom of each page keep the book feeling tongue-in-cheek while also making you feel weirdly more invested in the book, I dunno, I don’t think piercing the veil should be a cardinal sin. I mean, when you can see the wizard of Oz pumping steam into his machines, doesn’t it kinda make the thing more remarkable? Anyway, I think it’s really incredible to read an all-ages comic that genuinely does feel like it’s written for all ages, not just kids and adults who’ve been dragged along for the ride. The book is smart and funny and never really goes for the cheap joke, I really can’t think of a time that the book’s ever punched down, it’s got a weird amount of integrity for a story about a girl who can talk to squirrels.

“The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” will make you fall in love with Doreen Green and her pitch-perfect supporting cast, there’s a reason that a story about heroes called Squirrel Girl, Brain Drain, Koi Boy and Chipmunk Hunk was the second longest ongoing series at Marvel last year, it’s a wild ride that proves Doreen is nothing if not unbeatable.

grab it if you like:
-Well intentioned comedy
-Tongue-in-cheek storytelling
-Strong character work

If you like “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” read:
-“Jughead” by Chip Zdarsky, Ryan North, Erica Henderson and Derek Charm
-“Assassin Nation” by Kyle Starkings and Erica Henderson
-“Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen” by Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber


“Saga” is one of those super popular recommendations I mentioned before, so here’s hoping a couple of you really are new readers, otherwise I’m gonna have to fight to keep you from rolling your eyes all the way to the back of your skull. “Saga,” by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples, is the story of Alana and Marko, members of two opposing space empires locked in a massive proxy war. The series opens in the midst of the birth of their daughter Hazel and is narrated in retrospect by her throughout. From there the family face bounty hunters, judgemental grandparents, the unstoppable forces of tabloid journalism and a couple of exploding planets. As incredible as the story is, after a while it becomes clear that the series is just an excuse for Fiona Staples to sneakily design the most adorable characters to ever grace the page.

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Her designs never feel overstuffed but each has a little creative spark that lends so much personality to the character, mixed with Vaughan’s unmatched skill at developing voices, and you have one of the most personal and compelling character dramas of any medium. “Saga” feels endless, and it expands really effortlessly, but comics are kind of infamous for being big. “Saga” is special because it makes everything that’s big feel so intimate. Space is a kaleidoscope of natural wonders, Hazel’s found family aren’t charting it and they aren’t in control of any of it, they’re just there to enjoy the view and not get killed by black-hole babies. The whole thing is just beautiful and personal and so hard not to fall in love with.

It feels kinda funny to call this a comic with a smile seeing as it’s left us on the most soul crushing cliffhanger ever (and Brian K. Vaughan doesn’t exactly have a good track record with happy endings). But in a way, “Saga’s” narration creates this promise of a happy ending; it’s a throughline that allows for this weird level of intrigue, while still promising that at least Hazel gets to look back and commemorate all the fucked up shit this comic puts you through. Also “Saga” has its cast of 10/10s doing the deed every second issue, so that’s some free dopamine at least.

Grab it if you like:
-Huge Space Operas
-Criminally cute aliens
-Watching characters you love die in cruel and unexpected ways

If you like “Saga” read:
-“Ex Machina” by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris
-“Black Science” by Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera
-“Crowded” by Christopher Sebela and Ro Stein

Spider-Man by Chip Zdarsky

So I might have written one or two or too many loving tributes to Chip Zdarsky in my time, but would that ever stop me from writing another? Fuck no! I’ve only got to write about him doing “Spider-Man” twice, and that is simply not going to be enough. Between “Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man” and “Spider-Man: Life Story,” Zdarsky has written a solid 30ish issues of Spider-Man, with a couple of zesty cameos thrown in throughout “Daredevil,” all of which have been exquisite. I’m going to focus on three different stories that have really touched me (appropriately, these are his PG comics, remember) in a way Spider-Man rarely has.

“Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man” #6 was the comic that, at least for me, elevated Chip’s series from a secondary Spidey story/movie tie-in, to a wholly original brave new series that often pushed past the quality of Dan Slott’s mainline work. It basically follows Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson as they have a dinner date/interview exposé, with Jonah cooking the most aesthetically pleasing Lasagna to ever grace the page (thank you Michael Walsh). The story really perfectly delves into the complexities and hypocrisies of JJJ that have been built up over the last 60 years of stories, making him the sympathetic screw-up that I always hope he can be. The way Zdarsky cranks up the tension between the two makes the final reveal feel not only earned, but entirely revelatory. In case you haven’t had it spoiled for you I won’t say it here, but I’d really suggest jumping straight over to Comixology or wherever you get you quarancomics and reading through it, you might not know everything that’s going on, but there’s always the introduction and editors notes to hold your hand along the way.

A crisp, 15 issues later Chip blew me away all over again with “Peter Parker” #310, which ended his run on the character. Chip both wrote and illustrated this issue, which goes a long way. The standalone story follows a couple of New York film students who are making a documentary about their Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man as they look to find out ‘what does New York think of Spider-Man?’ The documentary format allows Chip to explore so many different styles and attitudes around Spider-Man, while also letting the story lilt between tear-jerkingly hilarious and tear-jerkingly depressing. It has that Pixar feeling to it, where it can switch from comedy to tragedy and back again at a moment’s notice. SKTCHD has an interview with Zdarsky where he explains it better than me, but I feel like so many people try to dig pathos out of Spidey by making him austere out of nowhere. But when you’ve got a character who’s so intrinsically wrapped in comedy, maybe the most emotion comes from him joking about the pain. Who knows, maybe Chip just wasn’t allowed to kill another one of Spidey’s girlfriends yet.

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Finally we have what might be Chip’s most famous series, “Spider-Man: Life Story” (I can’t really tell, was this a bigger deal than “Sex Criminals” or “Daredevil”? I feel like I heard more non-comic people talking about it, so probably, but once it started reading I don’t know if it got the same buzz issue to issue as those others do, write in! Tell me how wrong I am!). The premise is really fun in of itself, the six issue series basically follows Spider-Man since he first appeared in the sixties, with each issue jumping ahead one decade, only in this story Peter Parker ages in real time and we watch as he adapts and compromises to the world aging around him. The whole series has this nice level of self awareness that stops it from feeling like a weird rose-tinted march down memory lane as Zdarsky pairs beloved Spidey stories from times gone by (‘The Clone Saga,’ ‘Civil War’ etc), with the very really historical crises and anxieties from those cultural zeitgeists (the Vietnam War, the Cold War etc). By looking at how much we’ve all endured alongside our hero, it creates this really resilient, evergreen message of persistence through whatever life throws at you. It takes someone really special to take the years and years of diluted Marvel continuity and pull something this meaningful out of it, and Chip is nothing if not a special, special man. So in that spirit, I’ll leave you in the wankiest way possible, with a quote.

“I know dreams are boring, but I keep having this one. It’s the day Uncle Ben died … But this isn’t me beating myself up again. Like always. It’s different this time. It’s a good dream.”

grab it if you like:
-Happy-sad stories
-Historical fiction
-Comics that use chronology to their advantage

If you like ‘Spider-Man’ by Chip Zdarsky read:
-“Howard the Duck” by Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones
-“Spider-Man: Blue” by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
-“Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man” by Tom Taylor and Juann Cabal

Mister Miracle

As canned as this sounds, this book really fucked me up when I first read it, a part of the that is the graphic self harm in the first couple pages, which yeah, is a lot to process, but also the fact that the book just basically tells you over and over that you’re going to be hopeless and unhappy for as long as you can be and no new arrival or heartfelt achievement is going to break that misery. And that’s why Mister Miracle is one of the happiest comics I’ve ever read.

Basically “Mister Miracle” is a story about Scott Free, an escape artist from an alien paradise (think Thor but a little more biblical) who’s dragged back into a big, predictable space war alongside his wife Big Barda (who you’ll be in love with by the end of the book). As fun (and amazingly illustrated by the pitch-perfect Mitch Gerads) as the space-soldiering is, the real meat of the book comes from watching Scott unravel into exhaustion as he muddles through existential crises and LA traffic, constantly chugging along with the meandering dialogue that I’m such a sucker for. It’s all so unrelenting that whenever writer Tom King finally shows some mercy and gives us a small moment of release or success, it feels especially fulfilling.

The book does a great job of propping up these grandiose Stan Lee/Jack Kirby-style shakespearean space-farers and lets you watch as they shrink in that spotlight. It’s kinda the same as what I was talking about with the author’s notes in “Squirrel Girl” where you get to see through the story and find some more empathy for it because of that, but it’s really impressive to see that done textually rather than metatextuality. It uses a lot more BDSM and vegetable platters to get that across, as well.

“Mister Miracle” is so esoterically existential that I don’t even know if it has a happy ending, but at the very least it’s an ending of self-acceptance and I’m here for that. Maybe happy endings are overrated, as long as you have purpose, support and acceptance then maybe life can go on okay.

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Grab it if you like:
-Pulp recontextualised
-Dual narrative character studies
-Sad men eating celery

If you like “Mister Miracle” read:
-“Sheriff of Babylon” by Tom King and Mitch Gerads
-“Black Hammer” by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston
-“Goodbye Apollo” by Uyen Nyguen and Thom Nyguen

On the Shelf
Apparently nothing, comics are dead and we’re all in denial. Invest all your money in beehives, honey is the currency of the future.

Assorted Bits of Joy

In terms of music, I’ve been listening to Ocean Alley and The Rubens a lot, they’re great, hard to get sick of which is helpful now that I pretty much have my music playing 18 hours a day. Otherwise, Salami Rose Joe Lewis’s album Son of a Sauce is pretty quirky (you probably guessed that from the title) but it finds a way to make me smile every time I listen.

I finally got around to watching Yesterday, which is a really great, heartwarming film. It’s weird, I never really had a Beatles phase, but watching the film I realised I still knew all the lyrics to every song, it’s crazy how much of it you pick up by osmosis. Lily James is amazing in it, obviously. The film is infectiously cheerful, it just has this reassuring message that good art always endures, time doesn’t decide what’s good, talent does. I feel like there’s so much cynicism about that sort of thing these days. You know, older people feel obligated to hate new stuff and young people feel obligated to hate old stuff. Like I get it, Tik Tok seems kitschy and Downton Abbey looks like a show made to suck the final breaths out of those poor geriatric nursing home prisoners, but people love what they love, old stuff is always gonna be there and new stuff is always gonna bring something great to the table, we’re gonna be okay, just let people like what they like. Also this film gave me an excuse to listen to Eleanor Rigby again, which is always a win.

Recently I’ve been eating a lot of macadamia nuts and peanut butter/nutella toasties, but I don’t know if I should encourage you to do that until I know how much of my reader-base have a family history of heart defects. I’ve been cooking pesto though, pesto is good.

If you want some shorter time-sinks then I read a couple of really great longform articles recently like this post by comedian Michelle Brasier on living with cancer (I promise it’s cheery), a fun list on SKTCHD about 50 things to love about comics, and this insane piece of investigative journalism on the financial mismanagement and ethical mispractices of the world’s biggest Harry Potter LARP. But by far the most magical piece of content I’ve consumed in my increasingly small world was this artistic gem by Tim Batt and Guy Montgomery where they go down into the sewers and watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows three times a day for week so they can truly understand the film as method film reviewers. It blows my mind that this pilot never got off the ground, the universe is cruel.

Thank you all for reading, stay safe, stay solitary, stay sanguine.

//TAGS | Pageturn

James Dowling

James Dowling is probably the last person on Earth who enjoyed the film Real Steel. He has other weird opinions about Hellboy, CHVRCHES, Squirrel Girl and the disappearance of Harold Holt. Follow him @James_Dow1ing on Twitter if you want to argue about Hugh Jackman's best film to date.


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