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The Comics Alternative - Smart Discussions on Comic Books and Graphic Novels

Two guys with PhDs talking about comics! The Comics Alternative is weekly podcast focusing on the world of alternative, independent, and primarily non-superhero comics. (There's nothing wrong with superhero comics. We just want to do something different.) New podcast episodes become available every Wednesday and include reviews of graphic novels and current ongoing series, discussions of upcoming comics, examinations of collected editions, in-depth analyses of a variety of comics texts, and spotlights on various creators and publishers. The Comics Alternative also produces "special feature" programs, such as shows specifically dedicated to creator interviews, webcomics, on-location events, and special non-weekly themes and topics.
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The Comics Alternative - Smart Discussions on Comic Books and Graphic Novels
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Now displaying: March, 2015
Mar 27, 2015

The Two Guys with PhDs are glad to have on their show Noah Van Sciver, the creator behind the series Blammo as well as the recently published Saint Cole (Fantagraphics). The guys talk with Noah about the genesis of Saint Cole and how this became his follow-up graphic novel to The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln. For that matter, they're even more curious to know why the artist chose our depressive sixteen president as his first long-form focus. While historical narratives aren't unusual for Noah -- he addresses the great 1863 Denver fire in his comic, A City of Whiskey and Fire (with Daniel Landes) -- he's quick to point out that he's not a historically based cartoonist, as, for example, you might find in someone like Rick Geary. In fact, Noah tells Derek and Andy that he resists any kind of pigeonholing, even bristling at any attempts to place his work in the company of Robert Crumb or Chester Brown. He prefers to be a chameleon, changing up his subject matter at will, much like Leonard Zelig does in Zelig. And here is where the Two Guys demonstrate their characteristic talents for taking their interviewees into unlikely tangential realms. Throughout their conversation, Woody Allen becomes the topic that the guys keep returning to, especially since Noah is a big Allen fan. The creator even reveals that he's currently working on project in the vein of Stardust Memories, a story about a successful artist who goes to a convention but feels alienated from his fans while he depressively reevaluates his life. But the conversation never evolves, or devolves, completely into a Woodyfest. There's plenty of talk on Van Sciver's Blammo series, his AdHouse collection Youth Is Wasted, his strips 4 Questions and Rufus Baxter, the World's Oldest Unknown Rock Star for Westword, the Denver comics scene, his relationship with Kilgore Books and Comics, his desire to create a comic with a large ensemble cast, and his upcoming project for Fantagraphics, Fante Bukowski. So all in all, in this interview you get previews, you get insights, you get laughs, and you get a little cinematic Woody. What more could you ask for?

Mar 25, 2015

This week, Derek and Andy W. discuss recent titles that span the genre spectrum. First they look at the new release from Dark Horse, the English-language release of Claudio Nizzi and Joe Kubert's Tex the Lonesome Rider. Based on the famous American Western character created in 1948 by Giovanni Luigi Bonelli, this book was originally released in Italian and is now being published in the states in a beautiful hardbound volume. (Dark Horse had released the first part of this story in 2005 as Four Killers, Vol. 1: The Bartlett Brothers, and that same year SAF Comics published the entire story in English, but those books are long out of print.) The guys approach Nizzi's treatment of Tex Willer as a classic Western, but one that isn't afraid to delve into the darker, violent side of the genre. In fact, Andy argues that much of the story, underscored by Kubert's art, owes a debt to noir narrative, and that one could arguably read this as Western noir. Although Tex is a famous figure in Italian comics, he is much less known in the United States, and indeed, both Derek and Andy admit that before this new release, they didn't know much of anything about Tex and his history. But Tex the Lonesome Rider is the prefect introduction to the character, meticulously rendered by the legendary Kubert, and the guys hope that there will be more translated Tex stories to come. Next, they review the new collection from Peter Bagge, Sweatshop (Fantagraphics). Although this book was just released, Sweatshop isn't a new comic. It was first serialized by DC Comics during the last half of 2003, but it was canceled after only six issues. Now, the short-lived series is finally collected in a trade paperback, and if you're not familiar with the work of Peter Bagge, then this would be the prefect place to start. Reminiscent of Bagge's classic Hate, the story revolves around a self-centered and crotchety newspaper cartoonist and the young people he has working for him on the strip. Illustrated not only by Bagge, but also by Stephen DeStafano, Johnny Ryan, Stephanie Gladden, and Bill Wray, Sweatshop is a humorous, and at times sarcastically biting, look at the comics industry and the personalities that strut across its stage. Finally, Andy and Derek leap into Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips's Criminal Special Edition (Image), a one-shot oversized comic that takes us back into the creators' seminal world of noir. Released to help draw attention to the new editions of Criminal published through Image -- the original series came out through Marvel's Icon imprint between 2006 and 2011 -- this special edition is also an homage to the kind of sword-and-sorcery magazine-sized comics that appeared in the 1970s. The result is not only a curious pairing of genres, but more significantly, a narratively sophisticated return to a noir world that would eventually lead to such titles as Fatale and The Fade Out. If you're a fan of crime comics, Criminal Special Edition is essential reading.

Mar 20, 2015

For this episode of The Comics Alternative Interviews, Derek and Andy W. are pleased to have as their guest the man behind Hicksville, Dylan Horrocks. His new book, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, has recently been released by Fantagraphics, and on the show the guys talk with Dylan about his experiences writing the book and the philosophy underlying its creation. They begin by discussing its initial black-and-white serialization in Atlas (which lasted for only three issues between 2001 and 2006), and then was slowly released in color as an online comic beginning in early 2009. Indeed, as of the time of this interview, Dylan is still publishing the final pages of Sam Zabel on his website, so that the entire story will eventually be available digitally. However, readers will want to get the new hardbound copy in order to experience a full story immersion with its larger size format and its richness of color. The guys also ask Dylan about the narrative links between the new book and his other stories, most notably Hicksville, as well as any possible autobiographic significance in the character Sam. This leads to an in-depth discussion on the function of comics, the dynamics between fiction and autobiographic representation, and the moral implications of fantasy and self-censorship. In fact, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is predicated on these dynamics, with its characters posing multiple positions or viewpoints that are never truly resolved. Instead of being a polemic or a didactic on the ethical responsibilities of the artist -- as some readers have interpreted it -- Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is more an exercise in romantic irony, proposing conflicting and at times contradictory arguments that refuse any easy resolution, and instead, resides in an uneasy state of productive indeterminacy. In other words, the book's resonance rests more in the questions it raises than in any possible answers. Andy and Derek also talk with Dylan about the publishing history of Pickle, his work for DC -- specifically, his writing on Batgirl -- the Vertigo series Hunter: The Age of Magic, and, of course, his efforts championing New Zealand comics and underscoring its rich history. Much of the conversation revolved around the New Zealand comics scene, past and present, with Dylan demonstrating himself to be one of its most ardent enthusiasts. (Indeed, you can find his directory of New Zealand cartoonists and comics creators on his website.) Even though this was a substantive interview, Derek and Andy didn't get around to asking many of the questions that they had wanted to pose -- e.g., Will you ever return to the unfinished "Atlas" storyline?, Will "Cafe Underground" ever be collected?, and When can we expect to see more Moxie and Toxie? -- but what they came away with was a truly engaging conversation with one of the most exciting, and one of the most underrated, creators in comics today.

Mar 18, 2015

On this week's episode of The Comics Alternative, Andy and Derek discuss three exciting new titles. The first is the latest volume of the Hernandez brothers' Love and Rockets: New Stories (Fantagraphics). It's alway a fun show when the guys get to discuss works by Jaime and/or Gilbert, and they're certainly in their element delving into the twists and intricacies of the Hernandez's narrative worlds. There's a lot to highlight in this Love and Rockets, but there are two matters that are particularly noteworthy. First, most of Jaime's contributions revolve around triangle of Maggie, Ray, and Hopey. As the Two Guys point out, readers weren't sure what to expect after the 2011 volume of the series, when Jaime wrapped up the "Love Bunglers" storyline. That narrative had a feeling of finality, almost as if the saga of Ray and Maggie was coming to some sort of conclusion. (There was a tiny glimpse of the characters in 2012's Love and Rockets: New Stories, No. 5, but that was more postscript than anything.) But in this most recent volume of the series, we get to see how Maggie and Ray are evolving after the latter's traumatic accident. What's more, Hopey is brought back into Jaime's story world in a significant way, something we haven't seen in years. The other major observation that the guys make concerns Gilbert's pieces, mostly concerning Killer in Palomar and her relationship with her aunt Fritz. Much as in the previous volume of Love and Rockets: New Stories, Beto spins an elaborate tale surrounding Fritz, her b-movie career, and her mother Maria (which also links up with Gilbert's standalone graphic novels, Maria M.), although this time the complication involves Fritz doppelgängers, wannabe actresses who emulate her work. Derek and Andy feel that Gilbert's work has been rejuvenated with his return to Palomar, and this latest installment further convinces them of that. After a long discussion of Love and Rockets, the guys next turn to two new releases from Graphic Universe, an imprint of the Lerner Publishing Group. The first, Henrik Rehr's Terrorist: Gavrilo Princip, the Assassin Who Ignited World War I, is a fascinating account of the man, or the men, behind the assassination of Austro-Hungary's Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. While most of the book centers on Princip, his associations, and his evolution from an young student into a virulent Serbian nationalist, Rehr spends a significant amount of page space fleshing out the ill-fated Archduke, showing readers more of the man behind the historical persona. Indeed, one of Rehr's major accomplishments in Terrorist is presenting his subject matters, Gavrilo Princip and Franz Ferdinand, as complex and truly rounded figures, leading readers to feel conflicted sympathies that challenge traditional textbook accounts of the assassination. Perhaps even more significant, Rehr shows us the many intricacies underlying the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans that plague Europe to this very day. Derek and Andy wrap up their review show with a brief discussion of the other recent Graphic Universe book, Simon Schwartz's The Other Side of the Wall. This is an autobiographical account of the author's family as they attempt to emigrate from East Berlin in the 1980s, just a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. In his account, Schwartz reveals his parents' struggles against the loss of jobs, the alienation of family and friends, and the unremitting harassment of the Stasi. Along with Rehr's more "fictional" Terrorist, Schwartz's memoir is yet another example of how comics can effectively engage with history.

Mar 16, 2015

On this interview show, Andy and Derek are happy to talk with Kyle Starks, the man behind the new book from Image, Sexcastle. The guys speak with Kyle about the book's origins as a successful Kickstarter campaign last year, how it captured the attention of the folks at Image Comics -- thanks to Matt Fraction -- and the vast support the book has been receiving from the creative community. Sexcastle is an homage to 1980s action movies complete with no-holds-barred fighting, monster trucks, egomaniacal villains, explosions, assassins, nunchucks, as well as a fair share of animals thrown in for good measure (such as a polar bear, a pooping peacock, and an evil cat). It is also the story of redemption, as the narrative's protagonist, Shane Sexcastle, attempts to leave behind his past life as a master assassin and find peace as humble florist. The Two Guys also talk with Kyle about his previous Kickstarter campaign, Legend of Ricky Thunder, as well as some of other earlier projects, including Punch Captain, Adventure Wizard, and Butts (all of which you can find through his website, KyleStarks.com). Along the way Kyle also shares his love of HeroesCon, the joys of Mert's soul food, and his distaste for commentary tracks on DVDs and Blu-ray. It's a fun interview, filled with thrilling talk that rivals the action found in Sexcastle.

Mar 13, 2015

As he does every month, Derek is back at his local shop, Collected Comics and Games in Plano, TX, to talk with customers and employees about what they are reading. For March, the topic is open and with no particular theme, so anything goes. And anything does go when Derek sits down with Shea Hennum, a long-time contributor to The Comics Alternative and, actually, the only customer who turned up to talk at the shop that evening. (For some reason, it was a very slow night at the store, for employees and customers alike.) The two guys cover a wide variety of topics, but they spend a little over half of their time discussing Scott McCloud's The Sculptor (First Second). It begins when Derek asks Shea about a recent review he wrote for Paste magazine, something that Andy alluded to in the last episode of the podcast. Shea was quite critical of McCloud's new graphic novel, and Derek wanted to  know why, and so for over thirty minutes the guys go back-and-forth over the contexts and merits of The Sculptor. In some ways, this could be seen as a follow-up to this week's regular episode where Andy and Derek reviewed McCloud's work. But Shea and Derek discuss other topics and creators as well, including Jacques Tardi, Joe Sacco, underground comix, First Second's recent release of Last Man: The Stranger, and, because Derek is talking with Shea, several manga titles, including Naoki Urasawa's Monster, Seiichi Hayashi's Red Colored Elegy, and Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma 1/2. So despite the heavy critique that Shea brings to The Sculptor, there are plenty of good vibrations to be felt from this month's on-location episode.

Mar 11, 2015

The Two Guys with PhDs are back with another review episode, and on this one they explore three fascinating titles. They begin by discussing the much-anticipated recent release from Scott McCloud, The Sculptor (First Second). In fact, Derek and Andy begin their conversation with the very fact that this was a much-anticipated, and heavily reviewed, new book, and how all of that attention may be affecting the book's reception. They speculate on the ways in which the artist's prestige and reputation feeds into the expectations. Although McCloud has created memorable narratives -- e.g., the Zot! series and The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln -- this is an author most famously known for Understanding Comics and the expository/instructional books that followed, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics. The guys question if the author can ever get beyond his reputation as primarily a theoretician of the medium, and if he can ever gain renewed recognition as a creator of innovative narrative forms. And both Derek and Andy feel mixed over the prognosis. Yet despite all of the extra-textual commentary, the Two Guys spend most of their conversation in a close reading of the text. Much of their talk centers on the book's protagonist, David Smith, and the author's possible attitude toward his creation. Does McCloud want us to see Smith as a heroic (possibly romantic?) figure, or are we expected to read the sculptor more critically and as a flawed artist? This is a question that remains unanswered, and perhaps it speaks to McCloud's talents that the Two Guys cannot put a finger on an exact character assessment. They also discuss The Sculptor as not only as a creative treatise on art and its place in our culture, but also, and perhaps more specifically, as a commentary on the comics industry today. Theirs is not a gushing, unequivocal endorsement of the new graphic novel -- there are already plenty of those out there -- but Andy and Derek do see this as a serious new work and give it the full Comics Alternative treatment...spending a little over an hour discussing the text! Next, the guys look at two new number one issues from some of their favorite creators. Matt Kindt and Trevor Hairsine's Divinity #1 (Valiant) is a beautifully rendered science fiction narrative that apparently rests just on the periphery of the Valiant University. This is the first of a four-part series, and Hairsine's cinematic style is the perfect platform for Kindt's complex storytelling. Both Derek and Andy love Matt Kindt as a writer/artist, but this time around they get their fix through his scripting only. They experience the same with Descender #1 (Image), written by Jeff Lemire and with art by Dustin Nguyen. Most times they discuss Lemire's work -- and the Two Guys have done this often -- they do so by looking at him as a sole creator, but his new series with Nguyen demonstrates without a doubt Lemire's developed writing chops. The first issue accomplishes what it sets out to do, establishing a premise and tone that will both frame and propel the first story arc. This is definitely not a title that encourages trade waiting. Indeed, with both Descender and Divinity, you'll want to get every issue as soon as they come out.

Mar 9, 2015

On this special episode of The Comics Alternative, the Two Guys with PhDs wrap up Will Eisner Week by featuring a recording of an event that took place on Saturday, March 7, at Collected Comics and Games's Keller location. The title of the panel was "The Relevance of Graphic Novels in Culture and Modern Education," and speaking on it were Derek, Matthew Kolman of the Forth Worth Public Library, and Christopher Kilgore of the University of Texas at Arlington. All three shared their experiences using comics for educational purposes and discussed the many facets of their presentational potential. Along the way, they covered such issues as strategies for visual learning, labeling and categorization -- e.g., how useful of a term is "graphic novel," anyway? -- comics and literacy, the presence of a de facto graphic novel canon, reader maturity and visual explicitness, the place of seriality and cartoon one-shots, and the various forms in which comics are published. The audience members asked a variety of challenging questions, and some even shared their own experiences as both readers and teachers of comics in the classroom. All in all, it was an engaging conversation, and one that truly participated in the spirit of Will Eisner Week.

Mar 6, 2015

The Two Guys with PhDs continue their valiant attempt to bring you monthly shows devoted to quality, substantive discussion of webcomics. In this March episode, Derek and Andy W. focus on three distinctive titles, two currently ongoing and one completed webcomic. They begin by looking at S.D. Lockhart and Patibut Narm Preeyawongsakul's Star Punch Girl (and Derek deeply apologizes for butchering Preeyawongsakul's name). This is a different kind of webcomic that has a heavy manga and video gaming influence. This title began in April 2013, and so far the creators have completed the first two chapters. The first establishes the narrative with a creation myth, the titular character forming our world and then protecting it from nefarious forces. In the second chapter Star Punch Girl is invited to Earth and is honored by its worshipful inhabitants. Preeyawongsakul's colors are vibrant and the standout feature of this webcomic. The guys also discuss this series' apparent fan base, believing that it comprises mainly a younger demographic, and then contrast that with readers of the next webcomic they discuss, Brian Fies's The Last Mechanical Man. Readers aware of comics history will especially appreciate this webcomic in that Fies bases it off of an episode of the Fleischer Studio's 1941 episode of their Superman serial, "The Mechanical Monsters." What makes this series so captivating is the elaborate drama that Fies spins from a relatively simple superhero premise, making his story primarily character driven and psychologically thick. Andy and Derek speculate that, as he did with his Eisner Award-winning webcomic, Mom's Cancer, Fies is using the webcomic format to develop and experiment with his story before finalizing it in hardcopy form. This series began in November 2013 and may soon be wrapping up. And while not taking anything way from the other titles, of the three webcomics discussed this week, The Last Mechanical Monster is by far the one that the guys appreciated the most. Finally, Derek and Andy conclude the episode -- as they usually do -- by looking at an already completed webcomic, Bobby Crosby and Sarah Ellerton's Dreamless. This series originally ran from January 2009 to July 2010, and the creators later published a special edition hardcopy of the completed story. This is more of a novella than a novel-like narrative, with Crosby writing in a tightly condensed manner. The guys focus on Ellerton's watercolor-like illustrations, giving the story a soft and emotive tone that underscores the content. In fact, the best way to describe Dreamless is as a melodramatic romance, with an emphasis on the "melodrama." It may not be to everyone's tastes, but as the Two Guys with PhDs point out, if you appreciate a good love story, then this title may be for you.

Mar 4, 2015

It’s the beginning of the month, and that means that the Two Guys with PhDs Talking about Comics take a metaphorical stroll through the latest Previews catalog. And this month, their peregrinations are more than casual; this is more like a power walk. The March Previews contains a hefty series of solicitations that make for an extra-long episode, almost leaving the guys feeling like they’ve completed a marathon. Among the many upcoming titles that Derek and Andy highlight are Fight Club 2 #1, Harrow County #1, and High Crimes (from Dark Horse Comics); You Don’t Say, Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland, and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency #1 (IDW Publications); the usual slew of #1 issues from Image Comics such as Injection, Mythic, Material, Valhalla Mad, and Minimum Wage: So Many Bad Decisions; Russian Olive to Red King (AdHouse Books); a variety of books from and distributed through Alternative Comics, such as Irene Vol. 4, It Will All Hurt #1, Island of Memory Vol. 1, The Secret Voice #2, and Smilin’ Ed Comics; the first issue in Alan Moore’s new Lovecraftian series, Providence (Avatar Press); the new Captain Canuck #1 (Chapter House Publishing); Don’t Get Eaten by Anything and The Disappearance of Charley Butters (Conundrum Press); Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels and Optic Nerve #14 (Drawn and Quarterly); the usual impressive offerings from Fantagraphics, including Maria M. Book 2, Adventures of Tad Martin #Sick Sick Sick, and The Life and Legend of Wallace Wood; Exquisite Corpse (First Second); Annihilator, Vol. 1 (Legendary Comics); Louise Brooks, Detective (NBM); Aama Vol. 3: The Desert of Mirrors and The King in Yellow (SelfMadeHero); Surface Tension #1 and The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane #1 (Titan Comics); and Monster Mash: The Creepy, Kooky Monster Craze in America: 1957-1972 (Tomorrows Publishing). In addition to focusing on all of these upcoming releases, Andy and Derek also discuss Dark Horse’s recent decision to make several of their ongoing series digital-only, IDW’s acquisition of Top Shelf Productions as a new imprint, Alternative Comic’s new distribution agreement with several small presses, the joys of Adrian Tomine, and the fact that this is “Women in Comics” month in the March Previews catalog. In all, lots o’ things are covered…the kind of substantive, quality programming you’ve come to expect from the Two Guys with PhDs.

Mar 2, 2015

On this special episode of The Comics Alternative, Andy and Derek kick off Will Eisner Week by having as their guests on the show Denis Kitchen and Michael Schumacher. Denis is an underground comix legend as well the force behind Kitchen Sink Press, and he was a close friend, business associate, and former publisher of Eisner. Michael is an author whose biography, Will Eisner: A Dreamer's Life in Comics, was released by Bloomsbury in 2010. The Two Guys talk with them about the comics of Will Eisner, the artist's impact and innovations, and the person behind the legend. They discuss with Denis his recollections of his relationship with Eisner, explore the impact of the underground comix movement on the artist's career, and hear anecdotes about Eisner's aesthetic philosophy and business practices. Derek and Andy also talk with Michael about his experiences researching Eisner, his papers, and former associates, and they learn about his efforts in chronicling Eisner's life. The result is an engaging conversation that not only celebrates the artist, but also honors the man who was Will Eisner.

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