Comics Disassembled: Ten Things of Note from the Past Week in Comics, Led by the First Headliner of the Year

It was a somewhat light week for comics news, so let’s have some fun with ten things I liked or didn’t like from the week of comics.

1. Dragon Hoops, Shooting Its Shot

Next week’s guest on Off Panel is Gene Luen Yang, someone who has never come on the show before but I’ve long been a fan of. It makes sense, if you know me and his upcoming project. It’s called Dragon Hoops, and as you might have surmised from the title and the above cover, it’s about basketball. That’s a natural fit for me, as I constantly talk about how I want more sports comics, and basketball is my favorite sport. Bingo bango, what’s not to like?

Well, I’ll tell you what you should like: DRAGON HOOPS. Because that comic – which is about Yang as he follows his school’s (back when he taught) drive to win California’s state basketball championship – absolutely rules! I don’t say the following things lightly, because it’s January and because I am naturally biased towards a comic ostensibly about basketball. But if this doesn’t end up as my favorite comic of 2020, I will genuinely be shocked. That would mean that something just outrageously, astonishingly good entered the scene – which, please, give me that – as that’s what it would take to supplant Dragon Hoops from the top spot. Let’s do a quick scouting report of this title to share why I love it so much.

  • Incredible production value: I go on and on about First Second’s production value on their books, and with good reason. They are one of the best in the business. So again, I don’t say this lightly: this is the best production job they have ever done. This book looks and feels like a basketball. It is an outrageous accomplishment. I am in love.
  • It gets basketball right: Yang admits he isn’t a basketball fan on the first page of the book, but then he proceeds to both get the sport’s history correct – while perfectly integrating it into the story he’s telling – and the spirit and energy of the sport right. By the end of the book, I was actively rooting in the way I would be an actual game. It was outrageous. Bonus points: the title features real life basketball players Ivan Rabb, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Brian Shaw to name a few. That I definitely didn’t expect from the book.
  • Exceptional art throughout: Yang’s cartooning skills have never been sharper, and he does some truly brilliant things with the form as he’s drawing. My favorite example: when he’s talking to one of the players on the team about sketches he put up on Tumblr, he actively tweaks the player’s hair as the kid says he isn’t getting it right yet. It was super smart, and emblematic of the inventiveness Yang brings to the visuals.
  • Perfect blending of the personal and the story that’s being told: Yang is an active participant in the story, and his creative process and personal journey are worked into the narrative alongside everything that is happening with the team itself. It’s a marvel to see how he works the two seemingly disparate ideas – a man struggling to balance all aspects of his life and a gaggle of teens trying to win a title in hoops – in together, and he gets it right every time.

I’ve had comic folks tell me before that sometimes pushing yourself to do things outside your norm or comfort zone can lead to real gains for your work. And if that’s true, Yang is living proof of it, as he embraced a story that seemed tailor made for anyone that wasn’t him and came out of it with my favorite work of his yet. And that’s saying something! This is a guy who made two graphic novels that were up for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature! Not just one book, but two! So, yeah, Dragon Hoops is the business. It’s coming in March. Keep an eye out for it.

2. The Beat, Continuing to Drop

The heartiest of congratulations to Heidi MacDonald, grand poobah of The Beat and sole owner of the site once again. After some time being funded by Dave Steward II at Polarity (aka the parent company of Lion Forge), MacDonald’s taken the site back and will continue rocking everyone’s worlds with her ongoing coverage of the world of comics over yonder. I’m a big fan of Heidi and her work, and it’s a delight to read about a comic site both continuing onwards and maintaining independence in a time where those two things aren’t always guaranteed. So good job by you, Heidi! Keep up the great work!

3. Criminal, Ending Gloriously + Unexpectedly

What I expected this week from Criminal #12 was a truly miserable yet astonishingly great finale to the long-running Cruel Summer arc Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips had taken on. And you know what? I got it in what might have been the finest issue of the series yet, as so many events from the broader series came rushing back and together in the tragedy at the center of this issue. It hearkened back to the very first arc of Criminal, “Coward,” as the roots of that story are finally revealed here, nearly 13 years later. It is a beck of an achievement, and a brutal yet dazzling payoff to this elongated story.

Bonus: it also gets bonus points for quickly and impressively reframing the good guy/bad guy idea in just a few short pages, as the previous POV issues helped establish one idea but when those ideas came together something entirely different was revealed. Not the headliner moment, but a notable one.

What I didn’t expect this week from Criminal #12 was this issue being the final one of the current ongoing monthly series of the book. This was the focus for Brubaker and Phillips, but “was” is the key there. This wasn’t just the end of the Cruel Summer arc; it was the end of the series as a whole. I knew the pair had their upcoming graphic novel Pulp on the horizon, but I thought this was a palate cleanser in-between in the way that My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies was for the Kill or Be Killed and Criminal divide. That is not the case.

And you know what? That’s fine! This isn’t something I dislike. Instead, it’s just something I was surprised by, as I didn’t find out it was the final issue until I read Ed Brubaker’s newsletter on Tuesday. It seems odd to me that this wasn’t a bigger deal, although Criminal in of itself is a strange book in that it’s an unending idea that comes and goes depending on what the deadly duo wants to work on next. Finales aren’t truly that to them; they’re periods of ellipsis, an implied “to be continued.” Still, it was a surprising way to find out, especially as a relative super fan to their work.

4. Seth Rogen, Professional Comics Adapter

James Tynion IV and Eryk Donovan’s BOOM! Studios series Memetic is going to (potentially) become a movie, with Seth Rogen amongst the producers involved. Now, I don’t like to take away from the comic side of adaptation news, but this underlines something I’ve thought of a lot lately: Seth Rogen is the king of adapting comics these days. This week it was Memetic, last week it was Fear Agent, he’s previously been attached to Invincible (and is now a voice in the show), he obviously was one of the key figures on the Preacher adaptation for AMC as well as The Boys for Amazon…this dude is everywhere.

I feel like I’m forgetting something big, but I love that such a creative and entertaining individual like Rogen – someone who is clearly a big nerd in a very good way – is trying to push so many of these stories forward in new mediums. He seems passionate about the comics themselves, and then does what he can to manifest them in a different platform without losing too much of their core identity. I respect the hell out of that, and am happy that comics has a patron saint of that sort. And hey, it goes without saying that, if you’re out there Seth Rogen, I’d love to have you on Off Panel if you’d like to come and talk comics. Let’s do this, Seth!

5. The Ludocrats, Coming Soon (Promise!)

Cruelly, The Ludocrats – a title that has been coming soon for a very long time (it was announced in 2015) – is set to debut on April Fool’s Day of this year. But that’s the way the schedule works out, and it seems that The Ludocrats 2.0 is for real happening, with writer(s) Kieron Gillen and Jim Rossignol teaming up with the art team of Jeff Stokely and Tamra Bonvillain, a triumphant quartet of creators if there ever has been one.

It’s a promising mini-series, and one that promises zaniness in a medium often desperate for something fun, which is a nice change of pace for the frequently dark Gillen (which he admits in the THR article I linked to above). The revealed pages look great, as Stokely and Bonvillain are seemingly having a lot of fun making this book their own. But at the same time, I can’t help but wonder what could have been, as David Lafuente – a personal favorite – was originally slated to be the artist on the title. Normally we don’t see these kinds of handoffs play out, and it’s entirely possible what we saw here was just a regular occurrence behind the scenes. But it’s a curious “what if?” from the recent history of comics, as a Gillen/Lafuente iteration was guaranteed to be a banger.

It still could be. We’ll find out in April. I hope.

6. Image, Half Nailing It

My pals at Big Bang Comics in Dublin were tweeting about some things they like recently, and one of them caught my eye. It was a little thing Image has started doing in Previews magazine, in which they share notes about “if you like x, you might like y!” This is a simple thing to do and a pretty classic sales tool, as it’s an easy way to quickly translate to potential readers (or potentially ordering retailers) what a book is all about. I really like that they’re doing this. It’s a good idea.

However, I have to give them a slight demerit, because some of them are so Captain Obvious that I’m not sure how effective they are. One I linked to was effectively if you liked November (the recent Matt Fraction-written graphic novella from Image) and the art of Red One (an Image title drawn by Terry Dodson), you’ll probably like Adventureman, a title written by Fraction and drawn by Dodson. While that’s almost certainly a true statement – fans of Fraction and Dodson will likely be into a comic by Fraction and Dodson! – I can’t help but wonder if that’s a misuse of the form. These tools are meant to translate for people who are on the fence, and big fans of those creators probably aren’t that type. That’d be like saying “if you like meat and bread, you might like a sandwich!” Accurate, but not really that helpful?

That said, I do like meat, bread AND sandwiches, so maybe it is helpful? Who am I to say, really?

7. Wolverine(s), Being Great

X-Men #5 from Jonathan Hickman and RB Silva was predictably outstanding, as the Powers of X duo told a big, wild, yet also small story about a squad of key mutants dealing with – or at least attempting to deal with! – Serafina from the Children of the Vault, a character who returned in the first issue of this very series. It’s a highly imaginative issue, and one that reframes the cost of doing business when your business is being a superhero of a sort.

But I wanted to tout one specific moment, what almost certainly was a crowdpleaser amongst fans of Laura Kinney. Kinney, aka X-23, aka Wolverine, is a character that has a notably passionate fanbase, and the idea that Logan’s return could potentially take her newly adopted identity as Wolverine away from her felt regressive, a step back from an ascendant character. So when Hickman took two panels to have Laura firmly self-identify as Wolverine, once and for all, and then have Logan himself say, “You tell ’em, kiddo,” it did what it was supposed to narratively and as a tacit nod to the fanbase of “we see you, we hear you” without needing to do any more than that. Not that this was fan service – a phrase I abhor, and classify in the same vein as other nightmares like “fake news” – because Hickman isn’t really like that. But it was a nice moment, and one that certainly did wonders to quell a suspicious section of the fanbase.

8. Star Wars, Filling in Blanks

I’ve been listening to a lot of Binge Mode, The Ringer’s podcast starring hosts Mallory Rubin and Jason Concepcion that examines big stories like Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and Star Wars, lately. Within the current series focusing on the story set in a galaxy far, far away, one of the key frustrations the pair has had with the recent run of films is that Maz Kanata’s acquisition of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber – which was lost in Cloud City in Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader cut Luke’s hand off – was never addressed. She had it, but it was never explained how. Those discussions really underlined how weird it was that this didn’t happen to me, and it made me about 1% less pleased with the sequel trilogy than I was before (as opposed to Rise of Skywalker, which made me like it 43% less).

The good news is this week’s Star Wars #2 has hinted that it’s going to potentially reveal the answer to that, as it seems some of the main crew from the story is going to go back to Bespin to acquire Luke’s lightsaber (or at least try to). And that underlines my favorite part of what the Star Wars comics do, particularly since they went to Marvel. They’re officially filling in blanks for the story, ensuring that gaps like that one or any number of others don’t stay that way forever. I’m not a continuity wonk, so it’s not the end of the world either way for me, but there is so much material between each movie that could be explored. They’re doing a great job with it, especially the squad of Charles Soule and Jesus Saiz right now. Good job by you, guys! Digging what you have going on here!

9. Julian Totino Tedesco, Even Better in Sketch Form!

Lesser Julian Totino Tedesco is still superb work, and while it’s still a very nice piece, his 1950s variant to the upcoming Robin 80th Anniversary 100-Page Super Spectacular #1 – quite the mouthful of a title – is a little…basic for what I expect from the master cover artist. It’s a fine work, but it lacks the narrative oomph that make his covers as great as they often are. It’s good JTT, if not great JTT, which is still better than dang near everyone else.

But when I discovered this week that he had a discarded sketch for something that was much more in line with what I usually expect from his work, I wasn’t surprised. This piece is far more to my liking, feeling completely on vibe for the era and giving us a nice look at how the secret identity of heroes can change how people view them. It’s not like Superman/Clark Kent completely, but there’s a little bit of that to the Dick Grayson to Robin split, as you’re naturally going to talk up a hero over some seemingly normal kid in your school. That’s the stuff right there, and something I really wish became the final, especially considering it even features effectively the same base line Robin drawing. My guess as to why this concept didn’t make the cut? It’s pretty obvious: it doesn’t feature Batman. Alas, what could have been if it weren’t for the need to have the Caped Crusader on everything.

10. Binge Reading, Changing Things

I managed to get to the end of my read pile recently – which I noted last week was rather long – and one thing doing that made me think about was how different the experience is when you’re binge reading. Whether you’re talking about reading in trade versus reading a stack of single issues, some titles just jive far better with me (and maybe everyone!) when read several issues in a row.

Two titles in particular stood out in that way, as I went from actually having decided I was going to drop both of them to getting back in the flow with them after skipping for a bit, and interestingly, they’re both from the same writer. Robert Kirkman’s the writer of Outcast and Oblivion Song, two titles that are both solid overall – thanks in no small part to the art of Paul Azaceta/Elizabeth Breitweiser and Lorenzo de Felici, respectively – but just started feeling amorphous to me. In single issue reads, it all just kind of melded together, with character names and identities smooshing together in my head. “Was this guy that guy, or was he this guy?” was a common question, with my brain never really settling on a clear answer one way or another. It made me check out, despite my love of the art throughout.

But then I binge read the stacks I had for each book and everything connected better, feeling more cohesive and, crucially, urgent to me as I read them, which was a hilarious juxtaposition with my extremely tardy reading. All of a sudden, I was fully onboard again, but if unfortunately took me effectively forgetting about each title for that to happen. Outcast I’m back to buying in singles (it’s almost over, so that’s the clear play to me, a completionist), while Oblivion Song I’m going to wait for trade.

I’m not sure what this means, and as a quick note, Kirkman’s not the only one guilty of this, nor is he typically like this (both The Walking Dead and Invincible didn’t work like this for me). I do wonder sometimes if the writing for trade approach has a deleterious effect on interest in single issues far more than just the form itself. People had no problem diving into House of X and Powers of X, but they were very much written with the single issue form in mind. There’s a middle ground between writing for trade and writing for single issues that Hickman hit there that made those books work so well. Maybe that’s the real thing to learn from those books (or others like the aforementioned Criminal), because many other titles – including Outcast and Oblivion Song – are effectively telling readers to wait for trade (or, more likely, forget the book exists after saying you will wait for trade). It’s a tough spot, but something that needs to be thought about if comic creators want to maintain the impact of the single issue form, in my opinion.