The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

Rich Barrett
John Cassady/Marvel Comics
John Cassady/Marvel Comics / John Cassady/Marvel Comics

Every Wednesday, I write about the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, bookstores, digital, Kickstarter, and the web. Feel free to comment below if there's a comic you've read recently that you want to talk about or an upcoming comic that you'd like me to consider highlighting.

1. Star Wars #1

By Jason Aaron, John Cassady and Laura Martin
Marvel Comics

When Disney bought the Star Wars franchise in 2012, we all knew it was just a matter of time before they took back the comic book license from Dark Horse and handed it to their subsidiary, Marvel (who had held that license back in the time of the original trilogy). This officially happened a year ago, and now Marvel’s Star Wars #1 hits the stands as one of the biggest publishing events in years with over a million copies ordered by retailers—a staggering number compared to orders on the low side of 5 or 6 figures that we’re used to seeing in comics these days.

While Dark Horse had a successful, nearly 30-year run with the franchise, their comics could never escape the feeling that what happened in their expanded universe stayed in their expanded universe. With Disney now in charge, there is an official dictate that Marvel’s new comics will “count” (at least until one of the new movies contradicts them in some way). This first in a planned barrage of new series (books starring Darth Vader and Princess Leia are forthcoming) picks up where Episode IV left off and will begin filling in the three-year gap leading up to The Empire Strikes Back. This is actually just what Dark Horse had begun doing with a Brian Wood-penned Star Wars series two years ago but, again, those comics no longer “count”. That said, Marvel is now repackaging all the old Dark Horse material as well as the original Marvel series and has already pushed them to Comixology’s digital storefront where they were previously unavailable with Dark Horse.

These days, every publisher takes their licensed properties more seriously than they did in the past, but Marvel is putting some real A-list talent behind this comic. Jason Aaron (Thor, Scalped, Southern Bastards) and John Cassady (Planetary, Uncanny Avengers) are two big names (not to mention the 30 variant covers drawn by people like Alex Ross, Joe Quesada, J. Scott Campbell, and more). Cassady’s photo-realistic style makes this look like it really is Star Wars and helps bring us back to the days of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher’s youth. See for yourself.


2. Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen

By Dylan Horrocks

Seventeen years ago, Dylan Horrocks created his now-classic Hicksville, a comic about a fictional town in New Zealand full of residents who were all obsessed with comics. The book itself is a smart commentary on the state of the comics industry at that time and made a name for Horrocks in indie comics. After producing some smaller works over the years, including a Vertigo series, and an ill-fated stint writing Batgirl for DC, Horrocks began a webcomic in 2009 starring a secondary character from Hicksville. Sam Zabel and The Magic Pen, now a 228-page graphic novel from Fantagraphics, revisits the state of comic making that Horrocks first began exploring in Hicksville, bringing with it everything he has learned about writing, drawing, and creating since.

Sam Zabel, a thinly veiled stand-in for Horrocks, is a middle-aged cartoonist struggling with existential writer’s block while working on a comic featuring a sexy super heroine. Zabel’s world is soon opened up when he discovers an old comic book from the 1940s that he never knew existed. Now, this may sound like well-tread territory explored by many a white, middle-aged cartoonist such as Daniel Clowes and Seth, but Horrocks knowingly uses that as his jumping-off point to delve into ideas about power fantasies and the need for today’s comics to satisfy a broader, less male-oriented audience. The “Magic Pen” of the title allows those who draw with it to create comic books that they can then literally enter and live in. When he first finds himself within one of these worlds, Zabel’s conscience wrestles with the temptations it provides, most memorably in an orgy scene featuring a crowd of green martian women worshipping who they think is their “Cartoonist God King.”

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is a wonderful testament to the power of the cartoonist’s imagination while also being an incisive critique on how they use that power, hitting on everything from superheroes, autobio, and webcomics to manga. Fantagraphics has an excerpt here.


3. On Satire—A response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks

By Joe Sacco
The Guardian

In the days after the horrific massacre of 12 people at the office of Paris’ political satire magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7th, cartoonists around the world responded in solidarity with their murdered brethren by creating many touching and powerful images. It wasn’t until last weekend, when famed cartoonist/journalist Joe Sacco weighed in, that we saw a more measured—and controversial—reaction to the tragedy.

In Sacco’s one-page strip titled “On Satire,” he begins by saying the massacre did not make him defiant and ready to defend the principles of free speech. Instead, he explores the power of offensive images and the need for satirists to understand the context in which these images will be received. This is an unpopular and nuanced stance for Sacco to take, but it shows how the Charlie Hebdo massacre, with its complicated implications for free speech, religious freedom, and political correctness, does not evenly break down the along the usual lines of political ideology.

Here’s Sacco’s cartoon.


4. Conan and Red Sonja #1

By Gail Simone, Jim Zub, Dan Panosian and Dave Stewart
Dark Horse Comics

Before Dark Horse Comics held the license for Robert E. Howard’s Conan The Barbarian, Marvel Comics had a long run with the character. In 1973, Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith introduced Red Sonja in the pages of Conan. She was loosely based on a character called Red Sonya from an old Howard short story. Sonja, with her iconic chain mail bikini and fiery red hair, is still instantly recognizable, 40 years after her creation, yet has historically been considered a “male gaze” character until Dynamite Comics picked up her license and put writer Gail Simone in charge of reinventing her. In the complex world of license holdings, Conan and Sonja have been separated by two different publishers for over a decade until Dark Horse and Dynamite formed a partnership last year leading to this new Hyborian age crossover that shows the two heroes coming together at various stages of their lives.

Simone is teaming up with popular writer Jim Zub (Samurai Jack, Skullkickers) and Dan Panosian, an artist who seems like he was born to draw these characters. Panosian’s Conan looks like the classic Savage Sword-era Conan drawn by artists like Ernie Chan and John Buscema, but with Panosian's winking sense of humor about the characters.

Here’s a preview.


5. Wendy

By Walter Scott
Koyama Press

As much as I try to keep up on what is coming out and when, sometimes I read and enjoy a book but still miss out on its actual release date. Apparently, Walter Scott’s Wendy from Koyama Press came out all the way back in November, but it is so good that it’s worth mentioning here in January.

Wendy is about the exploits of an art student who is her own worst enemy. Her desire to be a successful contemporary artist and to make works that are meaningful and important is constantly derailed by her desire for boys, alcohol, and partying. In the three stories collected here, we see Wendy applying for an artist residency, writing for a blog, and interviewing for a job as an art director, all while making bad choices, partying too hard, and getting screwed over by her friends. It gets to the point that when she has her little victories, we find ourselves truly excited for her.

Scott has created a likable, memorable, and seemingly real character here, even while drawing her in a crude, black and white punk rock style. His cartooning ability and sense of comic timing, particularly in Wendy’s strung-out reactions to events around her, is truly excellent. Plus, he's put together some great supporting characters, notably Screamo, her crazy, gay BFF who is drawn like Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Most of the characters talk in abbreviated texting jargon and reference things like Tumblr and art blogs, making it just about the most dead-on representation of art school that we’ve seen in comics today.

Here are some preview images on the Koyama Press website.