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I’ve been reading superhero comics since I knew how to read, but it’s only recently that I’ve started to wonder why. For the most part they’re garbage. Today’s more literary-minded super-books are as junky and disposable as they were when the genre was invented in the late 1930s, only today’s stories lack the ridiculous fun and surprise that made the older ones so enjoyable. Yet I keep going back to that comic book store every week or so.

It might be nostalgia, or habit, but I think it’s mostly hope — hope for an immersive reading experience as awesome as Runaways, the ongoing super-book created by Brian K. Vaughan and mostly drawn by Adrian Alphona (NB: Brian recently handed over the writing reins to my personal hero Joss Whedon but I’m not up to those issues yet!)

Whenever a new volume of Runaways comes out (and by that I mean the paperback collections — you can’t beat that “6 Issues for 8 Bucks” bargain, kids!) I’m totally gonzo giddy until I get it home and start ripping through it. I just noticed this for the first time last week when I picked up “Parental Guidance” (Volume 6), and I also noticed how little I look forward to any other superhero comic by contrast. It set my mind to wondering what happened to those days of my youth when every comic brought that same feeling.

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[Editor’s Note: OK, we really don’t have an editor (yes, there is an argument to made that maybe we should). I just wanted to add that I’m trying like hell not to spoil this book for anyone, so if you don’t want to know what happens in this book DON’T READ AFTER THE JUMP! If you’ve read the book or don’t care to have the ending ruined, feel free to read on.]

I didn’t wait in line to buy my book at midnight this past Friday, in magical costume, with signs expressing my Potterfilia. On the other hand, I also didn’t pre-order at Amazon – because they couldn’t guarantee delivery until 7pm which would have meant a loss of too many prime reading hours. Instead I drove to my favorite independent book store and paid (gasp) full price, eschewing all the various sales and discounts. I imagined that Harry would have been proud of me standing up for the little guy.

Once I got there things went a little funny. The store’s subdued reaction to this release (maybe they were exhausted from their partying the night before?) was mirrored by my own. Though they had huge stacks of pre-orders behind the desk, there was no front window display (they had gratuitous ones for book five and six). I actually had to go into the children’s section and look for it. I did find it (one of three copies strewn upon various surfaces) but I reached for it with little excitement this time, finally fully realizing that, good or bad, this was the end.

Upon arrival home I paced from room to room, carrying it without opening it, feeling its heft and gathering the courage I didn’t know I would need. I knew once I began that I would read until I was finished. I am hard core in that respect; I would finish by Monday. Beyond small breaks to catch my breath, eat a snack or stretch my legs, I didn’t stop. Really, I couldn’t stop. The action starts on page one and doesn’t let up for 748 pages. I read it on the 15 minute ride to my parents’ house for dinner. Had I somehow found a way to walk the dog or shower and read the same time, I would have done it.

Unfortunately life did interrupt such an ambitious reading session. I’m not a kid on summer vacation who can stay up all night if I want to. Last night, after various fits and spurts and more than two hours past my normal bedtime, I finally closed the book. I sat silently for a few moments. Probing myself for any emotional injures, I realized I was left with a hollow feeling of sorrow which had nothing to do with the various deaths within the pages. Have no doubts about this -there were many deaths (two before page 80), some of them shocking, others heartbreaking and one in particular which brought tears to my eyes.

My sorrow was really for the answered questions (and yes, they are all answered).

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Editor’s Note: [Heh — fooled ya! I bet you thought there would be a note from an editor here. Alas, it’s just me. But I wanted to explain the following post. This week I have to read a bunch of comics for my lovely job, including manga (Japanese comics). And I’ve never read any manga before in my life. Ever. Just thought you should know.]

 

Naruto had to be the first manga I read in my effort to learn about Japanese comics, since it’s absolutely hands-down the champion high king bestselling comic book throughout the entire known universe at the moment. Naruto kicks sales ass in ways we haven’t seen in the comics industry since the 1940s, if ever. I had to see what it was all about.

What I want to say before I get too deep into it is that Naruto is a very poorly done comic. The figure drawing and linework is fine enough, but the storytelling — that all-important sequential clarity that all comics require — is sorely lacking. I spent a lot of my time doubling back a page or two trying to figure out what had just happened only to learn that there was no way to tell other than to read ahead and hope I got it in context or expository dialogue later on. The writing is equally bad, by necessity, since there is indeed a lot of expository dialogue needed to explain very simple plot points that I could have gotten on my own if the drawing was better.

With that out of the way, I also want to say that I really liked Naruto, I want to find out what happens next, and I completely understand why kids are gobbling this up like cookies all around the world.

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What to read next? It’s probably one of the most exciting and frustrating questions a reader can ask.  It’s a tough question.  Tougher still if you are a discerning reader looking for something new and interesting. 

Though I like a good mind candy, beach read book as much as the next person, I’m a little more demanding when it comes to “good reads.” If it’s currently on the NYT bestseller list (Harry Potter being the exception), I don’t read it.  If I see more than two people on the subway reading, I skip it.  If it’s in the top 100 on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, I’ll pass.  A good website for fiction for the anti-masses is bas bleu though they have been known to be very wrong (the Hazards of Good Breeding and Lucy are two notable examples). 

The safest bet is to ask other reader friends.  Reading is an experience made more enjoyable by sharing.  The simple phrase “You gotta read this!” makes what is necessarily a solitary activity suddenly a social one.  It’s the one thing guaranteed to drag us – hard core readers that is – out of our shells.  We hold up our titles like recent travellers with a photo album.  We want others to read – to see what we saw and to live what we lived.

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Cover ImageOK, I have an assignment for you. 

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Go out to the bookstore or library. 

Get The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear.

Read it, preferably aloud, to a loved one. 

 

Finished? 

Good, now that you’ve had a little taste of Moers, you’re probably good and soundly addiction.  Go straight back out and get Rumo (sorry, I should have told you that the first time). 

I’m not a fan of sequels, and thankfully this one is not.  You will see recurring characters and creatures from Blue Bear, but you will not see (at least I haven’t so far) Blue Bear himself.  For the uninitiated, this tale of Zamonia will seem like a bunch of nonsensical balderdash.  

Readers of Blue Bear will know it’s a bunch of nonsensical balderdash. 

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The ability of children’s literature to handle the “hard topics” is often underestimated.  Sometimes authors are criticised for pandering to children; they are accused of telling kids that the world is a good place where the bad guy always loses.  Embarrassingly my return to YA fiction in my adulthood was for this very reason.  Mostly it has been about nostalgic memories and a yearning for simpler stories.  As I creep farther and farther in adult society, children’s stories address a need for clear cut lines and black and white outcomes. 

If only it were that simple.  That I am misremembering is becoming increasingly clear.  Books like Bridge to Terabithia, Where the Red Fern Grows, Charlotte’s Web, and Tuck Everlasting are simple?  Clearly not.  They delve deeply into the basic questions of life: death, love, family and loss.  I’m finding that most YA fiction written today follows the example of these classics.  In fact these days authors more often come under heavy fire for treating kids as they should – as intelligent beings able to deal with complex issues.

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We all have our essential qualities that drive us forward or trip us up, that make everything in life work or break down, but we don’t notice them because we’re too busy worrying about the price of gas or whether or not someone likes us back. It takes life starting over — something that rarely, if ever, happens — to make us look inside without the usual mundane distractions.

But when you die, return from the afterlife, save the universe a couple times, and finally come back to where you were at the start of it all — that’s a grand opportunity. Only in the funny books!

At the start of Green Lantern: No Fear, Hal Jordan has returned to his former life, but nothing is the same (the details of his previous life chapter aren’t important for the purposes of this story — ain’t that nice? — and there’s a recap at the beginning of the book if you must know). Coast City, his hometown, was destroyed by a super bad guy and is only partway through a troubled, halting reconstruction. His brothers and their families hardly know him. He has to earn his way back to the top of his former career as a test pilot. We’re reading about a rebirth, a starting back from Square One, so we get to see his essentials, and see ourselves in them as well. Of course, since this is a Green Lantern comic book, fear is the biggest player in Hal Jordan’s psyche. Writer Geoff Johns knows that this is, conveniently, the biggest player in our collective real world psyche as well.

 

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As I was emptying my bag from a recent trip to the library, my boyfriend Tim looked at the stack which included Arabat and its sequel. “Who’s Clive Barker?” he asked, “And why do you have all his books?” I smiled a shy smile. I know I’m doing it again.

I develop crushes on authors the same way I used to crush on boys in junior high (OK, and in high school and a little bit in college. . .). Here’s a snippet from my diary: I love Chad. I love Bryan. I love Kevin. I love Kevin and Bryan and Chad. *Sigh* Riveting prose, I know. Apparently I never grew out of this phase, I merely redirected it.

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Against my better judgment, I recently bought a copy of Green Lantern: No Fear. It’s a collection of the current monthly Green Lantern comic book series, and the chuckle you just allowed yourself at my expense is exactly why I at first thought it would be a waste of my time. It just sounds geeky and useless.

This isn’t an unfair assumption when you consider the state of superhero comics these days. Comics as an overall art form is very healthy — graphic novels, newspaper strips, and self-published comics ‘zines are all doing well commercially and critically. But those monthly superhero tales are such awful loads of crap. And this is coming from a die-hard superhero fan.

My overall complaint is simple: truly great literature is universal, and there is nothing universal about this stuff. Superhero comic book publishers cater to a relatively small group of fans who are thrilled by the fact that their beloved characters are treated respectfully and seriously. It’s apparently enough for these readers to read periodic updates on the ups and downs of each hero’s love life or drug addiction or family situation. Superhero comics today are, for the most part, akin to soap operas or reality shows; there to excite readers who have an encyclopedic knowledge of each character’s history with references and in-jokes. That’s not a literary experience but a feeling of clubhouse belonging.

Green Lantern might be the comics outsider’s easiest example of this. Other superheroes have successfully nestled themselves in the greater public consciousness. Batman has his dark, brooding cool factor. Superman’s sense of moral certainty and optimism has always resonated far outside the comics community. Spider-Man is the everyman outsider – an outcast with a heart of gold. Wonder Woman appeals to a mainstream American mindset of feminism and the strength of the individual.

But Green Lantern? Isn’t he the guy with the magic ring?

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Jessica’s Reading

Jesse’s Reading

Jesse and Jessica are Both Reading

Devin’s Reading

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