After mentioning David Hajdu's book The Ten-Cent Scare last time, I thought I would briefly discuss some comics that I'm reading these days.
I've read comic books since seventh grade, which is what, 32 or 33 years ago. I read them through high school, Marvels mainly, then stopped in college when I became (ahem) serious, then picked up again in my late twenties (around 1990) and kept up for about five years. When I left for Morocco in 1995, I stopped, and only started again recently, as I'm in Massachusetts for a few months with a couple good shops nearby.
But man--stuff has changed since Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth (Jack Kirby's Planet of the Apes riff, with talking tigers, rats and seafood as well as monkeys) or even Frank Miller's Daredevil. When I left the country, Image was the hottest publisher going, with Spawn and Savage Dragon selling in big numbers (essentially, these were superhero books with a "dark" edge and/or some supernatural content to lend them an air of gritty seriousness). Make no mistake, there are still piles of superhero comics out there, but there's loads of other stuff too. The market has fragmented hugely, much like TV. Instead of three channels plus PBS, these days there are now hundreds of cable options, and in the same way, instead of Marvel and DC and a few undergrounds, there are now loads of small, independent publishers putting out quirky books. This is, I think, great, although I wonder if there are still one or two huge titles out there that everyone reads, more or less. Probably not, just as there's no longer a TV show like MASH or The Mary Tyler Moore Show that everyone watches, more or less. (I read somewhere that the only sitcom I watch, The Office, draws something like 9 million viewers. In the 70s, this would have gotten it cancelled; today, it's in its fourth season as a huge hit.)
But, comic books.
WASTELAND is an ongoing series written by Antony Johnson and drawn by Christopher J. Mitten. It's currently at issue 16 or thereabouts. As soon as I figure out what the hell's going on, I'll let you know. We are, apparently, about 100 years after some huge cataclysm called "The Big Wet," which destroyed civilization and left everything, paradoxically, a desert. A group of people abandon their town Providens and make their way to Newbegin, a fabled city somewhere to the west. There are zombie-like ghouls out there, and mysterious wanderers called Ruin Runners who live off the land, salvaging trinkets to barter at the towns, and a group of priests--mutants maybe?--who have their own elaborate set of rituals and theology. You'll notice I've barely mentioned the story, partly because it's extremely intricate. The folks from Providens eventually make it to Newbegin, where various disasters ensue. Adding interest is the narrative strategy of concurrently telling different threads of the story from different times. This is what baffled me for a while; you'd see people X and Y doing something in Newbegin; then turn the page and there would be X talking to Z in Providens. A nifty way to restructure time and present a narrative in a nonlinear mode. But I wasn't ready for it; geez man, it's a fucking comic book.
The art is good, sometimes very good, and getting better. It's a black and white book.
NORTHLANDERS, written by Brian Wood and drawn by Davide Gianfelice, is a much more traditional book from a more traditional copany (DC/Vertigo). It's set a thousand years ago, and it's about this guy Sven who returns to his Viking home in the Orkneys or thereabouts to claim his heritage (his Dad used to run the place, now he's dead, evil uncle has stepped in, shades of Hamlet). We're 5 issues in and there's already been plenty of swordfights, moody landscapes and (gasp!) sex, and we're starting to get the lowdown on Sven's background, why he left home all those years ago and why he's come back now. There's a shape-changing witch, if I'm not mistaken, and various dark secrets from the past. It's lightweight stuff compared to Wasteland but it's a quick read with great full-color art (muted tones that well serve the twilight-y environs) and a certain endearing earnestness to it all.
PAX ROMANA, written and drawn by Jonathan Hickman, is my favorite book out there right now, maybe ever. There are only 2 issues out so run out right now and buy them. Talk about a premise: 50 years from now, the Catholic Church is in deep trouble, faced with dwindling congregations and competition from atheism and Islam. So the church does what any self-respecting religious organization would do: it invents a time machine and sends a platoon of genetically-altered Marines (good Catholics all of them) to A.D. 300, in time to prevent the split of the Holy Roman Empire, and then hang around the next several hundred years, specifically to knock off Mohammad before he can gain political influence. Any other unforeseen developments threatening to challenge the primacy of the Church are also open to intervention. Sadly for the holy fathers, the Marines sent back in time have a slightly... heterodox understanding of their mission. Once successfully transported back (with a certain amount of materiel) they do indee prevent the Empire's split. However, after that, things very quickly go to shit.
Hickman is a very text-dense writer; there's always plenty of conversation in his books, most of it well done; sometimes entire pages are devoted to type. It can taken an hour to read one of his books, a rarity these days. The artwork is killer too, and rewards lingering. If there's one book out there that demonstrates the potential of the form, as well as potential lived up to, this is it. He has another book called TRANSHUMAN, about genetic modification of human beings, which is lively too, though not quite as bleedin' warped.
Have fun, kids.