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5 New Graphic Novels to Help You Survive the Summer Months

It’s summertime in the city, a season and a setting that are usually only considered by indie comics creators who are writing humorous and/or erotic stories about sweat, sex, and subway delays. There aren’t many essential entries in that ignoble subgenre of quasi-autobiographical comics and comic strips , unfortunately (though the Hugo Pratt–scripted and Milo Manara–drawn sexy Native American drama Indian Summer is sorta fun in a sleazy and very dated kind of way). But if you are in the market for a good comic book this summer, you’re probably looking for something light enough to stow in a carry-on, breezy enough to match your seasonally diminished attention span, and high-concept enough that you can devour it in one poolside sitting. Worry not, socially maladjusted readers: We made this list of cool, zippy graphic novels just for you.

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Supergirl: The Silver Age Omnibus vol. 2, written and illustrated by Various Artists
It’s easy to forget how charming superhero stories can be when they’re not weighed down by Frank Miller’s and Alan Moore’s by-now well-loved creative hand-me-downs. But this collection of blessedly surreal, self-contained, and brief Supergirl stories is a welcome reminder that light and silly is often better than grim and gritty in a modern world that seems to be perpetually on the brink of collapse. See Supergirl use elaborate disguises (including a stilt-enhanced Superman costume that she hides in a hollow tree) and ridiculous powers (super-ventriloquism and super-hypnotism!) to fend off evil wedding suitors, rotten foster parents, and mysterious alien strangers. Marvel at ludicrous plot twists and adorably bratty supporting characters, like Comet the Super-Horse and Streaky the Super-Cat. Gasp reverently as frequent Super-creators, like writer Leo Dorfman and penciller Jim Mooney, cram in more entrancingly weird ideas in a twelve-page backup story than most modern comics artists can in a six-issue-spanning, twenty-two-page-long story arc. Fun for most ages.
Supergirl: The Silver Age Omnibus Vol. 2 is out now.

Bad Girls, written by Alex De Campi and illustrated by Victor Santos
De Campi and Santos’s bubbly and bloody thriller follows three nightclub performers on New Year’s Eve 1958 as they fight to escape Havana before Fidel Castro’s revolution topples dictator Fulgencio Batista’s crooked but familiar bribe-fueled status quo (think Casablanca meets The Wild Bunch, only set during The Godfather II’s New Year’s Eve in Havana sequence). De Campi and Santos bring out the best in each other’s work. De Campi (No Mercy, Twisted Romance) characteristically excels at psychologically complex characterizations, and never once overburdens readers with padded backstories, or pedantic history lessons. And Santos (Filthy RichThe Mice Templar) brings an infectious dynamism to every action scene with clean line work and bold panel layouts that bring to mind formative draftsmen like Jim Steranko, Darwyn Cooke, and Bruce Timm. De Campi and Santos should work together more often.
Bad Girls is out July 17.

Vs., vol. 1, written by Iván Brandon and illustrated by Esad Ribic
This winningly gory, character-driven sci-fi/action story often feels like a reboot of Rollerball, in that it also follows a grim, over-the-hill athlete whose career is manipulated by media executives, commercial sponsors, and fellow players. The biggest difference between Rollerball and Vs. is that Brandon (EscapeBlack Cloud) focuses more on the world outside of lead protagonist/space gladiator Satta Flynn’s head, since Vs. is also about humble heroine Major Devi and the systemic conditions that keep her down in order to better prop Flynn up. Colorist Nic Klein — penciller of the Brandon-scripted Drifter — brings out the best in Ribic’s ink-intensive hand-painted art, making futuristic skylines and battlefields jump off the page with a vibrant mix of purples, greens, and oranges. Maybe the best-designed book on this list.
Vs., vol. 1 is out August 8.

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The Best of Witzend, written and illustrated by Various Artists
God bless the good folks at Fantagraphics Books for celebrating witzend, an odds-and-ends underground magazine that was originally compiled and published by mega-influential cartoonist Wallace Wood in 1966, and then by long-standing editor Bill Pearson from 1968 to 1985. This streamlined collection is worthwhile just for gorgeous illustrations and one-off stories from titanic creators like Vaughn Bodé, Steve Ditko, Frank Frazetta, Archie Goodwin, and Wood himself. Pearson also notably provides down-to-earth historical context in a couple of interviews and essays, where he credits Wood with inspiring artists to focus on creator-owned work as opposed to work-for-hire projects (none of witzend’s contributors were paid, but each retained his work’s copyright and reproduction rights). Pearson’s also refreshingly honest about why there’s so much naked lady flesh crammed into witzend’s pages: Many featured artists imagined that they were rebelling against the sanitized, generic constraints that were imposed on them when they worked on Marvel and DC Comics’ superhero and monster-intensive titles. Come for the dimpled asses, stay for the oral history article, featuring choice quotes from Pearson, Ditko, and others.
The Best of Witzend is out August 14.

Exit, Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles, written by Mark Russell and illustrated by Sean Parsons, Mark Morales, Howard Porter, Mike Feehan
Russell (PrezThe Flintstones) delivers another extraordinarily good melodrama based on a questionably absurd high-concept premise. Here, he reimagines Hanna-Barbera’s goofy pink mountain lion as a troubled, openly gay playwright living in 1950s New York who, when asked to testify at the House Un-American Activities Committee, struggles to remain loyal to his neglected wife, his human male lover, and his estranged childhood friend Huckleberry Hound (now a closeted alcoholic and a blue puppy dog–man). Russell’s dialogue and knack for seriocomic plot twists gives this bizarre project a shockingly sturdy emotional resonance and sensitivity. Highly recommended for anybody who’s open-minded enough to read a story about queer talking animals who congregate at the Stonewall Inn, daydream about putting on a show, and contemplate the vital necessity of outsider art at a time when too many Americans considered otherness to be the nation’s greatest threat (Heavens to Murgatroyd, talk about contemporary relevance!).
Exit, Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles is out August 22

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TO THE BAT-CAKE!

Seventy-five years ago, a cloaked figure swung over rooftops on the cover of Detective Comics #27. It was our first view of Batman, and we’ve never looked away for long. Celebrating that anniversary, current Batman writer Scott Snyder (fresh off “Zero Year,” a bombastic rethink of the character’s origin) will join DC Comics exec John Cunningham in the Bryant Park Reading Room for a conversation about Gotham’s guardian. The tree-lined setting seems like a perfect place for Poison Ivy to attack with giant Venus fly traps; thankfully, the party’s not at the Guggenheim’s exhibit of jewel-encrusted penguin statuettes.

Wed., Aug. 13, 12:30 p.m., 2014

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King Kirby Brings Comics’ Unsung Hero to the Stage

Survey the pop-culture universe, and it’s clear that a significant chunk of it originated in the mind of comic-book artist Jack Kirby. Not only did he co-create most of the foundation of the Marvel Universe (and a significant chunk of DC Comics’ as well), but his concepts and designs have influenced countless artists and filmmakers. And yet, despite being one of comics’ most important pioneers, in his lifetime Kirby failed to achieve the fame and financial rewards enjoyed by his frequent collaborator, Stan Lee. Now, comic book writer Fred Van Lente and award-winning playwright Crystal Skillman are debuting King Kirby, a play about his life, at the Brick Theater’s Comic Book Theater Festival.

First off, could you describe Jack Kirby’s importance to comics, and to the culture at large?

FVL: We like to call Kirby “the most famous artist you never heard of,” particularly for non-comics readers. He co-created Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Avengers, the X-Men. He was pivotal in the creation of romance comics. He did some of the best science-fiction comics in the ’70s; he was one of the first to do independent comics in the ’80s. The reason the San Diego Comic-Con is in San Diego is that it was close enough to his house so he could come. I could go on, but why bother?

CS: I knew him more from The New Gods [a sci-fi title Kirby created for DC Comics, which influenced Star Wars, among many other things]. I could see the larger imprint that he had. So when Fred had an idea for a play of his life, I was really excited.

FVL: I had written a play around 2002, before I became a comics pro. When the Comic Book Theater Festival started up, Crystal suggested I dust it off, and she did an incredible job rewriting it and reshaping the material.

What is it about Jack Kirby’s life that makes good drama?

CS: Comics didn’t really exist before these guys. People were creating this world as they go. That’s always very exciting for an audience, because they’re not being dropped into something they can’t understand. These are guys who need work, and this is their skill. People can relate to that.

I think it’s really cool that there are these big moments — going to war, serving under Patton and using his drawing skills to make maps — but there are these great little moments, too. We’re very lucky that there are so many interviews with him, and he was so very vocal throughout his life. He’s given us these little glimpses that he regrets certain moments. He’s a really compelling character, because he admitted some failings, and fought for the things he believed in.

FVL: It’s a grand tragedy in almost a Shakespearean way. I don’t think anyone is interested in another “dreamy artist battles the cruel, harsh world of the marketplace” story. These are fallible people. And many of the reasons why no one knows who Kirby is outside of comics — the blame can be rested very much on Kirby’s shoulders. I’m heartened that all the people who’ve read the play are pleased at how evenhanded it is. It’s as much a man versus himself story as it is a man versus Stan Lee story.

How are you showcasing Kirby’s art in the production?

FVL: Our lead, Steven Rattazzi [the voice of Dr. Orpheus on The Venture Bros.], studied animation when he was younger, and he’s going to draw onstage. So we’ll have Steven’s live drawings in addition to the actual Kirby artwork. Obviously we don’t expect an actor to be able to mimic Kirby’s drawing style.

CS: Drawing is an important action of the play, and the way it’s coming to life will be very exciting. John Hurley [who also directed Action Philosophers, a play Skillman adapted from one of Van Lente’s comics] is a very visual director, but he also keeps things grounded and moving. We’re moving very quickly through the play and his life, but they’re such dynamic moments that sometimes they imitate the genre he’s working on at the time.

FVL: Part of the conceit of the play is that since Kirby’s art is so frenetic and action-packed, the show is very frenetic and packed with detail — hopefully in a way that the audience finds super fun and simple to follow.

You’re also doing a Kickstarter for the production. Has that changed its ambition or scope?

FVL: Not really. The Kickstarter has allowed us to get the best people and get the best actors, and have the freedom to do the best possible production we could. The other great thing is that the Kickstarter campaign also serves as a marketing campaign. It’s a way to get the word out.

CS: It really allows these projects to live and breathe, and get to the audience. What’s exciting is proving the need for something. It’s very moving, because people have been sharing it everywhere and saying, “Help this. Help this come to life.” That’s a really gorgeous thing.

What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing King Kirby?

FVL: I hope people get a better understanding of where their popular culture comes from, and what happens to the people who produce it. Too often the assumption is just this stuff is cranked out at some corporate machine. But human beings make this stuff, and they have living, breathing stories, and this is one of the more important ones.

CS: What I love about Jack’s life is that his drawings speak for him. They are his words. I think that’s very inspiring. That has value in itself, even though maybe everything didn’t turn out exactly the way he was hoping. The effect that he’s had, and the little vibrations that keep growing among other artists that he’s inspired, make the life lived have value.


King Kirby opens June 20 at the Brick Theater (579 Metropolitan Avenue) in Brooklyn. Tickets here.

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A Real-Life Apostate Drawn in Thick Campy Strokes in Uriel Acosta: I Want That Man!

Jewish history is the story of the underdog, so perhaps it’s natural that the characters in Target Margin Theater’s latest explorations in Yiddish drama bear some resemblance to the animated canine superhero, or any standard issue DC Comics defender. With capes trailing and blue spandex blazing, TMT flies up, up, and away into mock-heroic metaphor with the campy Uriel Acosta: I Want That Man!, which finishes off the second season of Beyond the Pale, a project of almost biblical proportions, with 23 productions in two years.

The actual Acosta was a 17th-century Portuguese Christian and Rationalist who converted to Judaism, was excommunicated for his radical views, recanted, committed suicide, and wound up a stock figure of Yiddish theater claimed and contested by rival actors. But his significance soars Superman-like over us in this 70-minute, go-go-booted exodus from the philosophical high ground of a real-life apostate to the murkier marshland of his numerous fictionalized representations.

Firebrand, scapegoat, lover, coward, tragic hero: Acosta’s many caricatures are drawn in thick strokes under David Herskovits’s direction. Brandishing a hand-held fog machine, projectors, and three toy theaters, the four Uriels (led by James Tigger! Ferguson) and two technicians part the seas of interpretation into multiple rivulets, which meander brightly for a while before drying up inconclusively. Regrettably, TMT’s years of research in Yiddish culture leave us high and dry in a desert of affected playacting when we might have reached a more promising land of ideas.

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DOUBLE-DRAW DARE

Sure, the pen is mightier than the sword, but what about an adamantium shield or a Batarang? Hosted by artist Liza Biggers and comedian Pete LePage, Big City Dare2Draw brings cartoonists of every level together for a night of live drawing in a game show atmosphere. Action models pose with props, while participants bring dynamic new life to them on paper. Tonight’s guest artist is DC Comics artistic director Mark Chiarello, who has helmed such knockout projects as the artist showcase Solo and the vintage newspaper comics section throwback, Wednesday Comics. It’s a night of networking, quick-draw contests, and prizes; proceeds go to help artists in need.

Wed., Jan. 23, 6 p.m., 2013

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Thwack! Batman’s Back

Confession: Were it not for the likes of costumed crime fighters in tights, I might never have become a scribe. My father’s timeworn 2000-plus comic-book collection kept me out of my baby-sitting great-grandma’s hair as a three-year-old, cultivating my love for the written word. And seeing my byline in lights—having a fan letter published in Captain America #273 at the age of 11—set my life direction forevermore.

In the ’80s, the masters of this particular universe were the writers (Marv Wolfman, Chris Claremont), artists (Bill Sienkiewicz, George Perez), and not-so-rare writer-artists (John Byrne, Howard Chaykin), mainly operating at the twin powerhouse publishers of DC Comics and Marvel Comics, which provided the force for the last true creative renaissance seen in the comics industry. In 1986, 29-year-old writer-artist Frank Miller trained his gritty Chandler-Spillane style on an apocalyptic Gotham City in The Dark Knight Returns, featuring the prodigal return of a fiftysomething Batman. Over a million copies and 15 years later, Miller can still draw legions of fans, as he did recently at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square, where he was signing copies of the long-awaited sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again. This time, Batman does battle with the clandestine evil of a corrupt government that’s lulled its republic asleep with a New World Order of false prosperity.

Confession: I first met Frank Miller as a nine-year-old, at one of the many comic conventions held downtown at the Sheraton Hotel during my youth. By the time my younger brothers were of comic-book-reading age, the allure of superhero adventures had become subsumed by the get-rich-quick farce of comics as collectibles. “People were buying cartons of these comic books that were never read thinking that they could put their kids through college on them, and they aren’t even worth the price of the paper anymore,” Miller recalls over a frothy Samuel Adams at the Algonquin Hotel. “All of a sudden, the comics shops were run out of business, sales plummeted. But it’s starting to bounce back.” As evidence, The Dark Knight Strikes Again has already become the biggest selling comic of 2001. The book is a visual marvel, full of gloriously colored power complex detonations and vivid killer asteroid demolitions, courtesy of colorist Lynn Varley, in addition to more pugilistic battle scenes that play more to Miller’s grimy artistic strengths.

Miller’s 1986 four-issue miniseries restored the original focus established by creator Bob Kane in the late 1930s of Batman as tortured avenger of the night. In contrast to the more Apollonian Superman—who received superpowers as his Kryptonian alien body’s reaction to the rays of our yellow sun—Batman’s more Dionysian origins stem from his search for revenge in the death of his parents, shot cold by a burglar. “The fact that Batman has got this trauma from his early childhood is basically what gave his life direction,” says Miller. “But he’s pushing 60 in this book. He’s gotta be over it.”

The ominous version of Batman offered up by director Tim Burton in the Batman film of 1989—the one with the Prince soundtrack—was largely swayed by Miller’s psychological, noirish take on the character. Now Hollywood has recruited Miller to pen next year’s Batman: Year One, which sets Miller’s tale of a 25-year-old Bruce Wayne learning the ropes of striking fear into the hearts of the criminal element against the edgy direction of Darren Aronofsky (pi, Requiem for a Dream). Soundtrack by Radiohead?

“If you’re a screenwriter, you know you really are a hired gun,” says Miller, who has written both Robocop II and III in the past. “But it requires absolute passion and presence of mind to get a movie made from start to finish. At this stage of my life, I didn’t want to go whole hog and try to change the course of my career that utterly. I got my comics, and [there] I can be the evil dictator myself and rule the show, which is great.”

Not coincidentally, other comic creators from the halcyon 1980s are returning with hotly anticipated projects: The final installment of John Byrne’s Generations 2, which tracks the relationship between Batman and Superman from 1942 to 2019, dropped recently; artist George Perez has just completed a special-edition comic featuring the Avengers (a team of Marvel Comics heroes) and the Justice League of America (adventurers from DC Comics). “The concept of the superhero survived the world war and flourished,” says Miller. “Who knows where it will take us? The president talks incessantly about evil. I don’t think melodrama is dead.”

More important to both Miller and the revitalization of the comics industry on the whole is resurrecting the element of wonder. Spending the past decade concentrating on his popular Sin City detective comic series, a sense of purpose infuses his return to the spandex-clad set of characters surrounding Batman. “I guess my job with this one is to take somebody like your age or my age and try to turn them back into that six-year-old I was when I was watching Superman cartoons,” adds Miller. “To really bring back the magic of the stuff.”



Also in This Week’s Books Section:


Joy Press on The Siege by Helen Dunmore and My Happy Life by Lydia Millet


Hilary Russ on Another World Is Possible: Conversations in a Time of Terror