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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: December, 2015
Dec 31, 2015

For their December manga episode, Shea and Derek discuss two very different works. They start off with Makoto Yukimura's Planetes Ominbus, Vol. 1, just released from Dark Horse Books. This is the first of two large editions of the Japanese series that originally ran from 1999 to 2004. It's the story of a space debris removal crew -- orbital garbage collectors -- whose job is to clear out all of the man-made trash floating around the earth so as to make space travel safer. Taking place in the 2070s, this is a futuristic narrative that feels closely connected to our own world. The guys describe it as a kind of hard science fiction (with its emphasis on technical detail and scientific accuracy), but one that is heavily character-driven. Derek highlights both the drama and the comedy that take place among the crew members -- especially with Hachimaki, who is arguably the central figure in this first volume -- and Shea points out that while anchored in the science, Planetes is more of an "everyday" series that is focused on the mundane facets of space exploration. Next, the guys turn to a completely different kind of manga, one that challenges our ways of reading comics. Ding Dong Circus and Other Stories, 1967 to 1974 (Breakdown Press) collects fifteen of Sasaki Maki's short works, all but one originally published in the legendary manga magazine, Garo, between 1967 and 1971. The majority of these pieces are not what you would call "stories" in the strictest sense, in that there is no temporal or causal connection between panels suggesting sequence. Even the comics that do betray narrative elements, such as "The Town Horse" or "The Ballad of Henri and Anne," are constructed in fragmented ways that suggest an unsteady dreamscape more than anything. The best way to read Maki's work, as Shea and Derek point out, is by understanding it as visual poetry -- with an emphasis on image and association -- or as "musical" compositions reliant on graphical leitmotifs. If you approach Ding Dong Circus in this way, then you can better enjoy Sasaki Maki's pop art-like, collage form of manga that embodies much of the tone and significations of the 1960s. For more on this book, check out Shea's recent review on the A.V. Club.

Dec 30, 2015

It's the last regular review episode of the year, so that means that the Two Guys with PhDs are here to share what they consider to be the best comics of 2015! In this extra-long episode, Andy and Derek discuss their 10 favorite titles of the year. Neither knows what the other has chosen before the recording, giving the episode a sense of freshness, spontaneousness, and surprise. And there are indeed several surprises in this year's picks, including the fact that there is only one title that appears on both guys' lists. Also, noticeably absent from their selections are the titles that have been populating many of the mainstream press' "Best of" lists (e.g., Killing and DyingThe SculptorLumberjanes, and The Sandman: Overture: Deluxe Edition). And each of the guys notes some trends that appear in his list this year. For Andy, it's the prominence of autobiographical comics, and for Derek, it's a an emphasis on realistic novel-like narratives. Before they get to their favorites, though, they go over some year-end statistics regarding the podcast. For example, over the past year the guys have published 139 episodes (as of last week), which is roughly 42% of all of the episodes they've put out since the podcast began in 2012. They have also conducted 39 interviews in 2015, published 8 publisher spotlight episodes, and began two new monthly series (one for manga and another for young adult/children's comics). Needless to say, it's been a productive year for the guys.

But the heart of this week's episode is the Two Guys' discussion of their ten favorite titles of 2015:

Andy's Top 10 of 2015

Derek's Top 10 of 2015

The Honorable Mentions…These Titles Almost, but Just Didn’t Quite, Make It onto Each Guy's List

For Andy

For Derek

Dec 21, 2015

As has become an annual event, Andy and Derek use their penultimate show of the year to discuss the current volume of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's The Best American Comics. The series is overseen by Bill Kartalopoulos -- whom the guys interviewed on the show last year -- and this year's collection is edited by novelist Jonathan Lethem. The entries collected in The Best American Comics 2015 represent what both Lethem and Kartalopoulos consider to be the most outstanding comics published between September 1, 2013, and August 31, 2014. The guys begin by highlighting the organization of this year's volume, pointing out that Lethem has retained the topic- or theme-based approach used by Scott McCloud in last year's collection. The editor breaks down his entries into ten different chapter topics, ranging from the self-evident "Storytellers" and "Biopics and Historical Fictions" to more obscurely intriguing groupings such as "Brainworms" and "Raging Her-Moans." The guys are familiar with most of the contributions included this year -- to paraphrase Andy, The Best American Comics volumes just seem to reinforce their tastes in comics-- and many of them have been the subject of previous Comics Alternative reviews and interviews. They comment on the sheer number of entries that are excerpts from longer works, including Roz Chast's Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Jules Feiffer's Kill My Mother, Farel Dalrymple's The Wrenchies, Gabrielle Bell's The Colombia Diaries, Sept 14-16, Cole Closser's Little Tommy Lost, Matthew Thurber Infomaniacs, Anya Ulinich's Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel, Jim Woodring's Fran, Anya Davidson's School Spirits, and Josh Bayer's Theth. Most of these selections easily stand on their own, but some could have benefited from more content or additional editorial context (examples being the excerpts from Anders Nilsen’s Rage of Poseidon and Joe Sacco’s The Great War.) Some of the highlights in this year's volume include works by creators that either Derek or Andy have never read before, such as Mat Brinkman and his darkly surreal Cretin Keep on Creep’n Creek, or Gina Wynbrandt and her hilariously self-deprecating Someone Please Have Sex with Me. This is another must-read book for the Two Guys, but their discussion isn’t without its disagreements. In good Siskel and Ebert fashion, the guys spar over the nature of the Best American Comics volumes and, specifically, over the curious “Notable Comics” list in the very back of the book. (This is a list of other significant comics published between September 1, 2013, and August 31, 2014, but not making it into the volume proper.) Derek mentions the almost complete absence in this list of any titles reflecting mainstream (in a broad sense) sensibilities -- the one exception to this is Geoff Darrow’s Shaolin Cowboy from Dark Horse Comics -- and scratches his head over these choices that come with no permission or copyright obstacles. And he argues that discussing a text by what it is not can actually give a firmer grasp of what it actually is. Andy, on the other hand, is completely OK with the totally subjective approach to anthologies such as this, and he questions Derek's assumptions of the book's readership. The guys also discuss the notion that, in many ways, these selections are also political choices, especially when published by a major trade house such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. But these are the kinds of debates that should sound familiar to Comics Alternative listeners, especially when it comes to matters of awards, essential readings, and “Best of” collections. The bottom line, though, is that both Andy and Derek agree that The Best American Comics 2015 is yet another important contribution to our ever-expanding understanding of the medium. “Best” or not, these comics are definitely well worth reading.

Dec 18, 2015

On this episode in The Comics Alternative Interviews series, Derek is pleased to have as his guest Alex Robinson. His latest book, Our Expanding Universe, was released earlier this month from Top Shelf. It's the story of three middle-aged friends going through life changes -- kids, careers, and relationships -- and how their friendships, and their marriages, weather those experiences. Readers already familiar with the author's earlier works, specifically Box Office Poison and Tricked, will recognize the tone and subject matter. Robinson is a master of character-driven narratives, especially when his protagonists bump up against the social realities that reflect his readers' own lives. He objective assessments aren't distancing, but instead bear an empathic stamp. You may not particularly like the characters you encounter, but you certainly understand their motivations and their unique perspectives. Much of the conversation revolves around the new book, but Derek also talks with Alex about his early years as a comics artist and how his approach, along with his career, has evolved over time. And much of that evolution has involved podcasting. In fact, Alex Robinson may just be the most dedicated fellow podcaster that has ever appeared on The Comics Alternative. He's currently involved in three different shows: Ink Panthers (a cartoonist's "lifestyle" podcast that he cohosts with Mike Dawson),  AlphaBeatical (an alphabetical look at the entire Beatles catalog, from 12 to Y), and the popular Star Wars Minute.  The latter -- a hot commodity right now, given all of the Force Awakens hoopla -- is a daily podcast where each episode is devoted to one individual minute of the Star Wars movies, in order, beginning to end. Andy Kunka has often called his buddy-cohost, Derek, the hardest working man in comics podcasting, but it's clear that Robinson has him beat. Between the comics and the podcasting, it's a wonder that Alex even had time to be on The Comics Alternative.

Dec 16, 2015

For this week's review show, Gene and Derek are back with an extra long episode jam-packed with nougaty comics goodness. They begin with Adrian Tomine's Killing and Dying (Drawn and Quarterly), his new book collecting issues twelve through fourteen of Optic Nerve. (Be sure to check out the guys' previous reviews of Optic Nerve #13 and Optic Nerve #14.) The text contains six separate short stories, and the guys start by trying to find any connective tissue binding the pieces together. Derek observes that every other story in the collection -- "Amber Sweet," "Translated, from the Japanese," and "Intruders" -- are first-person narratives functioning as confessionals of some sort. Also, the three longer stories that precede each of these "confessions" become progressively darker in tone. The overt humor embedded in "A Brief History of the Art Form Known as 'Hortisculpture'" gives way to the ambivalence of "Go Owls," which leads to the more ambiguously somber "Killing and Dying." Yet this is not a story cycle, by any means, with each narrative standing distinctively on its own, both in subject matter and art style. Next, the guys focus on a recent discovery, the semiannual Canadian magazine, Taddle Creek. It's latest issue, #36, is a special comics edition featuring many artists the guys admire, such as Noah Van Sciver, Dakota McFadzean, Meags Fitzgerald, Michael DeForge, David Collier, Nina Bunjevac, Joe Ollmann, and Maurice Vellekoop. And part of the joy of this collection is being introduced to creators Gene and Derek weren't familiar with, such as David Lapp, Philip Street, Eleri Mai Harris, Jason Kieffer, and Nick Maandag. It's difficult to pinpoint their favorites in this anthology, since everything in it is good...although Gene is quite taken by Fitzgerald's "The Village under the Clouds," and Derek spends a lot of time talking about the comedic sophistication of Ollmann's "A Road Trip with the Notorious M.I.L." After that, they discuss the newest digital comic out Panel Syndicate, Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's Barrier #1. This is the first of a five-part tale of violence, division, and illegal immigration. (And just in time for the angry chaos currently known as the Republican primary!) Although Gene isn't yet familiar with the duo's previous collaborative efforts, Derek wonders if Barrier will have a similar impact as did The Private Eye. Finally, the guys wrap up with what has to be one of the oddest comics ever discussed on The Comics Alternative. R. Sikoryak's The Unabridged Graphic Adaptation of iTunes Terms and Conditions -- published in two mini-comic volumes (and also on Sikoryak's Tumblr site) -- is just as the title describes: an unabridged adaptation of the oft-encountered, but never read, iTunes Terms and Conditions. What makes this comic so notable, and what makes it distinctively Sikoryakian, is the manner in which the artist adapts the text. Each page of the comic is not only a rendering of the iTunes legal mumbo jumbo, but also an exercise in representing comics' most distinctive creator styles. From Jim Steranko to Will Eisner, from Julie Doucet to Akira Toriyama, from Mort Walker to R. Crumb, from Bil Keane to Moebius...Sikoryak's art spans the history of comics, and with everything converging on the stubbled, bespectacled, and black turtlenecked figure of Steve Jobs. This is a fun read, perfect for those long nights of software installation.

Dec 15, 2015

For the month of December, Sean and Derek are back to discuss three very different, very distinct, webcomics. They begin with Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Otertag's Strong Female Protagonist, a title that has been going strong since 2012. As described by its creators, the story concerns "the adventures of a young middle-class American with super-strength, invincibility, and a crippling sense of social injustice." Although that may roughly encapsulate the premise, the webcomic is much more sophisticated than that. In fact, the guys spend a great deal of time discussing the creators' ambitions with the story, both in terms of the art and regarding its subject matter. Derek wonders if Mulligan, especially in the fifth chapter, may be trying to juggle too much at one time, making his narrative almost top-heavy with its intended messages. Sean disagrees, but he does see the philosophical ambitions embedded in the text. And it is on the topic of philosophy that the guys segue into their next title, Corey Mohler's Existential Comics. This webcomic is notable for two reasons: it's the first gag-based, done-in-one kind of comic that the guys have ever discussed on the webcomics series, and it's as funny as hell! It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that this is one of the funniest titles ever discussed on The Comics Alternative, webcomics or otherwise. Mohler uses actual philosophers themselves, and the entire history of philosophical thought, as the grist for his absurd mill. In Existential Comics you'll find the ancient Greeks playing Texas hold'em, Franz Kafka at the DMV, Diogenes encountering a commie-killing Abraham Lincoln, Albert Camus thwarting Rudolf Carnap's barfly pick-up efforts, Søren Kierkegaard at a rave, a zombie God (animated by Arthur Schopenhauer) attacking Friedrich Nietzsche, Simone de Beauvoir hosting her own cooking show, and a wide variety of philosophers trying to play Dungeons and Dragons. Finally, Derek and Sean wrap up with a look at Bucko, a short webcomic by Jeff Parker and Erika Moen that ran from 2011 to 2012. As the guys discuss, part of the fun of reading this title is seeing how Parker and Moen kept trying to outdo themselves with unlikely plot twists and characterization that built do an almost chaotic crescendo. Sean, however, isn't a fan of the story's ending, which he sees as too convenient and too predictably Scooby-Doo-like. Still, you could read Bucko -- along with Existential Comics -- as a freewheeling antidote to those holiday blues.

Dec 9, 2015

One of the things that has defined 2015 for The Comics Alternative has been the number of Publisher Spotlights it's presented -- seven, up until today. This week, the Two Guys are back with their eighth and final spotlight of the year, one on the fall releases out of Locust Moon Press. They begin their critical focus with a brief interview Derek conducted with Josh O'Neill, the publisher of Locust Moon Press. In that conversation, Josh shares the background and history of Locust Moon, first as a bookstore (which will be closing its doors early next year) and then as a publisher with an impressive catalog. They also discuss the press' success with Kickstarter, including last year's campaign with Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream and the current efforts with The Lost Work of Will Eisner. After that, Andy and Derek get into the nitty gritty of the show, a discussion of Locust Moon's fall releases. They begin with Prometheus Eternal, a short collection of stories inspired by Rubens's famous painting, Prometheus Bound. This work was created in collaboration with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and including work by such creators as Grant Morrison, Paul Pope, Dave McKean, Bill Sienkiewicz, Farel Dalrymple, Yuko Shimizu, and David Mack. Next, the guys turn to another collection, this one the sixth issue of Quarter Moon. The theme to this issue is "Impractical Cats," and with cat-related contributions from a variety of creators including Farel Dalrymple, Tia McClelland, Mike Sgier, Lisk Feng, Jim Comey, Gregory Benton, J.G. Jones, Dean Haspiel, Jeremy Baum, and a host of others. After that, they look at Ben Kahn and Bruno Hidalgo's Shaman, a satiric and inventive mashup of superheroes, the supernatural, and humor. Neither Andy nor Derek were aware of Shaman before this spotlight episode -- they completely missed Kahn's Kickstarter from earlier this year -- but now they're totally on board and look forward to more of this series, because it's funny as hell. Finally, the guys wrap up with a long discussion of Little Nemo's Big New Dreams, a joint effort with Françoise Mouly's TOON Graphics. This is a smaller, more affordable, and more holdable, version of the broadsheet-sized Dream Another Dream, including more than thirty strips from the Eisner Award-winning collection. And like the aforementioned Prometheus Eternal and Quarter Moon collections, this TOON book is chock-full of impressive contributors, including Art Spiegelman, Craig Thompson, Carla Speed McNeil, Mark Buckingham, Roger Langridge, Box Brown, R. Sikoryak, Jim Rugg, Yuko Shimizu, Gerhard...and the list goes on. In fact, you could even see today's show as the most creator-packed episode that the Two Guys have ever recorded.

Dec 8, 2015

In yet another of the Two Guys' interview series, Derek is back to talk with one of the hardest working people in comics today, Ed Brisson. The first issue of his and Adam Gorham's new series, The Violent, will be released tomorrow, and Ed shares with Derek the story behind this new ongoing title from Image Comics. In fact, Ed reveals that the genesis of the narrative actually springs from his earlier webcomic (and later Dark Horse title), Murder Book. The protagonists, Mason and Becky, are a young working class couple with a checkered past trying to escape the drugs and crime that helped to get them where they are today. As Ed describes, their dilemma has very much a "Murder Book feel," making The Violent an ongoing extension of that story collection. The two also talk about his and Lisandro Estherren's upcoming four-issue miniseries from BOOM! Studios, The Last Contract, the story of a retired hitman who reluctantly finds himself forced back into the business. Along the way, they also bring in discussions of Ed's previous series such as ComebackThe FieldThe MantleCluster, and Sheltered. In fact, it's all that Derek can do to contain a conversation that includes such prodigious output. Ed's definitely a hard-working writer, but as he makes clear in the interview, he knows how to let loose, have a good time, and then let those experiences inform his art.

Dec 8, 2015

Tomorrow the Two Guys with PhDs Talking about Comics will release a Publisher Spotlight episode devoted to the fall releases from Locust Moon Press. As part of that show, Derek talks briefly with the Locust Moon publisher, Josh O'Neill, about the history of the press, it's recent output, and its success with Kickstarter campaigns. In fact, Josh shares in detail Locust Moon's latest Kickstarter, The Lost Work of Will Eisner, which will wrap up on December 10th. As a way of teasing tomorrow's episode, and in order to give listeners more time to learn about and back this Kickstarter campaign, we are making Derek's conversation with Josh available today.

Dec 7, 2015

On this interview episode, Derek is pleased to have as his guest Jon Morris, the author behind The League of Regrettable Superheroes (Quirk Books). This is a book devoted to the heroes throughout comic-book history who just never made it to the big time...and for good reason. As Jon discusses on the show, his work chronicles some of comics' weirdest and wackiest superheroes, complete with backstories, publication history, and colorful vintage art. In the pages of The League of Regrettable Superheroes you'll find strange figures from the Golden and Silver Ages, as well as plenty of head-scratching curiosities from more contemporary times. Throughout much of their conversation, Derek and Jon discuss some of their favorite regrettables, including The Red Bee (a district attorney donning striped leggings and carrying bees hidden inside his belt, his favorite being named "Michael"), The Clown (a police commissioner turned crimefighting circus clown), The Eye (a giant, disembodied eye...that's it, just a floating eye), Nightmare and Sleepy (pro wrestlers dressed in white and with an apparent skeleton fetish), Captain Marvel (not who you think, but someone whose disturbing superpowers includes disengaging his body parts), Fatman the Human Flying Saucer (a green-wearing version of the Fawcett Captain Marvel, but one with a weight problem who turns into a flying saucer), Gunmaster (a pacifist who relies on an inventive arsenal of guns to fight crime), Adam-X The X-Treme (a hero embodying the X-treme worst of '90s culture), the New Guardians (DC Comics' attempt at multiculturalism gone horribly wrong), and Killjoy (Steve Ditko's silent Ayn Randian "mouthpiece"). Jon even discusses some of the earlier manifestations of very current heroes, such the Outsiders, Prez, and Squirrel Girl. What comes through in the guys' conversation -- and what is central to the success of the book -- is Jon Morris's sense of humor. Then again, you have to have one to write about this unlikely collection of crimefighters. A candy-inspired strongman named Captain Tootsie? A robot with an iron propeller beanie named Bozo?

CLICK HERE FOR REGRETTABLE SAMPLES!

Be sure to check out Jon's web presence:

Dec 4, 2015

As the end of 2015 draws near and the holiday shopping season is in full swing, Andy and Gwen have drawn up their lists of their favorite comics for young readers released during the last year. Although their choices run the gamut from texts for early readers up through to texts for teens, every text mentioned creates a fine balance between serious subject matter and engaging artwork and writing. Many of these comics would be great choices for parents and kids to read together. 

Andy’s List:

Gwen’s List:

Books that both Gwen and Andy Selected:

Andy and Gwen alternate leading discussion for each book and finish up by discussing two books that made both of their lists.

Dec 2, 2015

As Andy and Derek do at the beginning of every month, they use this first week of December to flip through the latest Previews catalog, highlighting upcoming series and notable new releases that capture their attention. Among the many soon-to-be-released titles they discuss on this week's show are comics from

Also in this episode: the guys enthusiastically welcome new Patreon supporters; complain about reading from PDF files; discuss the increasing weirdness of Neal Adams; speculate on the pronunciation of "Amontillado"; anticipate next year's new SyFy series, Wynonna Earp; pat themselves on the back for getting an endorsement blurb for a major upcoming book; and, of course, give a lot of love to Fantagraphics.

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