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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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Now displaying: February, 2016
Feb 24, 2016

On this week's review episode, Andy and Derek delve into two new and exciting titles. They start with Ludovic Debeurme's Renée (Top Shelf Productions), the followup to his 2011 release, Lucille. In fact, the guys begin their discussion by describing the earlier book and setting the stage for what they see in the recent narrative. Renée picks up on the story of Debeurme's young protagonists, Lucille and Arthur, and weaves within a third character, Renée Bruissiez, another troubled figure struggling with both family and relationship issues. Indeed, her dilemma thematically resembles those of both Arthur and Lucille, and Debeurme juxtaposes these storylines so that Renée reads somewhat like a psychological conversation. But the Two Guys also note the differences between the two graphic novels. Whereas the art in Lucille is more simple and iconic, Debeurme's illustrative style in the new book is more detailed and highly textured. In addition, there's a more surreal or dreamlike feel to Renée, and at times the storytelling style and visual characterization reminds the guys of a cross between Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes. They wrap up their conversation by observing that, although there's no textual hint of one, Renée ends in such a way that would warrant yet another volume. Next, Derek and Andy jump into the more edgy and forbidden world of Peter Milligan and Leandro Fernandez. The first issue of their new series, The Discipline (Image Comics), will be released in early March, but the guys take an early look at what readers can expect. In the inaugural issue we are introduced to Melissa, an attractive yet sexually frustrated young wife whose husband seems to provide her with nothing other than financial security. While in a museum being mesmerized by a provocative Goya painting, she meets Orlando, whose seductive lure ultimately pulls her into strange world that might best be described as a mix of BDSM and fantasy. Things heat up and take unexpected turns, making it a much more risqué take on relationships than Milligan's other current title, New Romancer. The guys conclude that this first issue of The Discipline doesn't disappoint, and that it's a title definitely worth following on a monthly basis.

Feb 17, 2016

This week on The Comics Alternative Gene and Derek focus on the funny, the poignant, and the creepy. They begin with Evan Dorkin's The Eltingville Club (Dark Horse Books), a nice hardbound edition that collects all of the Eltingville Club stories published over the past twenty years. This is Dorkin's twisted, and at times acerbic, love letter to geek and collecting culture. Bill, Josh, Pete, and Jerry make up the Eltingville Comic Book, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Role-Playing Club, and their antics are as hilarious as they are painful to read. This is because Dorkin cuts to the bone of fandom, and readers will probably recognize these scenarios and contexts from their own lives. Indeed, in a short essay toward the end of the volume, Dorkin himself admits that many of the stories are based on his fan-obsessed experiences growing up, as well as on the darker side of the culture he's witnessed as a creator. Yet as uncomfortable as these stories can get at times, they are some of the funniest comics you'll read all year. What else would expect from the creator of Milk and CheeseDork, and Dick Wad of the Mega-Vice Squad? Next, the guys take a look at Cry Havoc #1, written by Simon Spurrier with art by Ryan Kelly (Image Comics). This is the start of what appears to be a unique take on the werewolf narrative. At least this is what Derek and Gene think might be the case. They're not entirely sure, because this first issue leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and not necessarily in a good serial-driven way. As the guys discuss, there are parts of this story that are a bit confusing but whose uncertainty will probably be addressed with the completion of the first narrative arc. The creators even saw fit to annotate this #1 issue, which raises additional questions about the story's ability to stand on its own. Still, Kelly's art is worth the price of admission, and the series' use of multiple colorists, each creating a different mood, makes this a title worth watching. Finally, the Two Guys wrap up with Shawn Aldridge and Scott Godlewski's The Dark and Bloody #1. This is the beginning of a new Vertigo Comics series, the first since the publisher launched its twelve next-wave titles back in the fall (and for an in-depth look at those series, check out episode 170). Derek, in particular, likes this inaugural issue, feeling that it does a good job of setting up the premise with just the right amount of story tease. By contrast, Gene isn't as enamored of the issue and feels that this isn't the kind of Vertigo comic he had once grown to love (and admittedly, Gene hasn't been keeping up with the publisher in quite a while). Much like Cry Havoc, this is also another monster tale with, as of now, an ambiguous and ill-defined terror. And, in an offbeat way, it's the perfect companion to Dorkin's Eltingville Club, a book with its own kind of monstrosities.

Feb 15, 2016

For the February webcomics show, Sean and Derek explore three very different titles. They begin with Christopher Mills and Joe Staton's Femme Noir, a unique twist on the crime noir genre. This is series of tales surrounding a mysterious, unnamed crime-fighting PI who dons an iconic trench coat and fedora, but whose long golden locks and fishnet hose give her away as something wholly other. The guys describe this comic as a blend of BatmanThe Shadow, and The Spirit, but with a female protagonist who is anything but a victim. One of the unique contexts of this webcomic, as Derek points out, is that the stories currently being serialized online have originally appeared in print. What Mills and Staton are apparently doing is using their previously published material to re-introduce their comic to a new audience -- and through an entirely different narrative delivery system -- and the guys hope that this will eventually spawn brand new Femme Noir stories. Next, they turn their attention to Farel Dalrymple's It Will All Hurt. This is yet another intriguing title from Study Group, a publisher (online and print) visited often on The Comics Alternative. (Indeed, last year's July webcomics episode was devoted solely to Study Group titles.) Both Sean and Derek are blown away by Dalrymple's art, which should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the creator's work, but at times they are a little confused by the storyline. However, they speculate that perhaps Dalrymple's surreal, dreamlike narrative is supposed to confound, and that one of the best ways of engaging with It Will All Hurt is to just read it through without pause and let the pieces sink in as the story unfolds. After that, the Two Guys wrap us with a webcomics classic, Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield's FreakAngels. This is an important title for the medium, and Sean and Derek spend a good deal of time discussing its impact and what it meant (and still means) for webcomics. This is an opportunity for Sean to revisit the webcomic, in that he was there reading it from the very beginning back in 2008. Of course, the guys also plunge into the story itself, a fantastic post-apocalyptic narrative that bears the Warren Ellis stamp. And they specifically address Duffield's art, a truly outstanding facet of this webcomic. The guys also mention Avatar Press' links to the project and how they were taking a chance during the title's original run. All in all, this month's webcomics episode is both fun and substantive, so crank up your browsers and hold on tight!

Feb 10, 2016

It's Wednesday, which means that the Doctoral Duo return to share their recommendations of recent releases! And this week, Gwen and Derek focus on three exciting, yet quite diverse, new titles. They begin with Nick Dranso's Beverly (Drawn & Quarterly), a series of six stories set in a Midwest suburban landscape, where individuals grapple with friendships, alienation, and the uncertainties of growing up. Gwen notes the dark poignancy of these narratives, character studies that often make the reader uncomfortable and made all the more effective through Dranso's clean lines and simple illustrative style. What struck Derek was the book's construction. This isn't a "traditional" collection of separate stories -- something like you would find, for example, in Eleanor Davis's How to Be Happy or Adrian Tomine's Killing and Dying -- but a text more akin to a short-story cycle, a collection of discrete stories, each of which could stand on its own, but all interconnected in such a way that a fuller meaning is generated by their textual proximity. Derek's term for this hybrid form within comics is "graphic cycle," and a classic example of this would be Will Eisner's A Contract with God. All of the narratives in Beverly connect in some way, and over time, through a few key characters. This debut graphic novel from Dranso is this week's highlight for both Gwen and Derek. Next, they check out the first issue Emma Rios and Hwei Lim's Mirror #1 (Image Comics). This story is part of the 8House universe, and the two begin with a brief discussion of that context. Both enjoyed this first issue -- especially Lim's elaborate design and watercolor art, which is truly stunning -- but found the setup a little confusing, at times. As Derek points out, this first issue lacks the amount of exposition necessary to fully grasp what is going on, although it's assumed that many of these narrative questions will be answered in the issues to follow. While both cohosts appreciate Mirror, they feel that those prone to trade waiting might want to wait until the complete arc is collected. Finally, Gwen and Derek wrap up with a look at Ryan Ferrier and Daniel Bayliss's Kennel Block Blues #1 (BOOM! Studios), the first of a four-issue limited series. This is a wild anthropomorphic tale about a kennel as prison, and about a protagonist unable to deal with reality on the inside. Oliver is not sure why he is sent to the Jackson State Kennel, and in times of uncertainty he retreats into a happy place, a technicolor fantasy world of dancing figures and catchy tunes reminiscent of the old Merrie Melodies or Fleischer brothers cartoons. As with Mirror, the art stands out in Kennel Block Blues, with Bayliss adeptly handling the transition between the dark kennel and Oliver's song-happy fantasy world. But Ferrier's writing in this first issue is equally impressive, providing just enough setup to satisfy, yet leaving the reader with eager expectations for the next installment.

Feb 9, 2016

On this interview episode, Derek talks with Tom Manning, whose most recent work, Runoff, was released late last year from One Peace Books. They discuss the genesis of the project -- how it began as a self-published serial and then eventually evolved into a massive 450-page tome -- and its ambitious scope. Tom describes it as a mashup of genres and styles where he wanted to exploit the full range of the comics medium. Runoff is a horror sci-fi mystery set in small Washington state town resembling the one that Tom grew up in, and it's equal parts dark, humorous, and head-scratchingly confounding. Manning employs an ensemble cast of eccentrics, reminiscent of Berke Breathed's Bloom County, but who reside within a Lovecraftian landscape. Indeed, the cthulhu of this narrative is an enigmatic floating obelisk or headstone-looking entity with moe type eyes. And if that's not disturbing enough, you have a vigilante group of monsters by way of the Universal lot, but whose zombie member is a polite soul who goes by the name of Mr. Pickles. Ghosts become a central part of the narrative, and these spirits exercise their right to vote. And then there's the inter-dimensional bleeding -- Edwin A. Abbott, anyone? -- that turns into an inter-dimensional feeding. If this sounds like a weird, whacked-out comic, that's because it is, a style that Tom describes as "gothic American surrealism." As Tom explains to Derek, he wanted to see where his story would go, what narrative tributaries carried him to the most interesting effects, and the result is quirky book that that could easily find its way into a Syfy series.

Feb 8, 2016

This month, Andy and Gwen discuss two recently released comics: Comics Squad #2: Lunch! (Random House), an anthology for younger readers, edited by Jennifer L. Holm, Matthew Holm, and Jarrett J. Krosoczka, and Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) a graphic memoir written by Özge Samanci, and designated as a comic for readers aged fourteen and up.

First up, the two PhDs share reminiscences about their own hijinx at the lunch table when they were in elementary school, and as Andy points out, the short comics collected in Comics Squad #2: Lunch! cover a veritable smorgasbord of subjects, from the anxiety that new kids feel about walking into the school cafeteria for the first time to a non-fiction comic about the way that a particular food item enabled US soldiers to win an important battle during World War II. The eight stories collected in the anthology are relatively short, making them ideal for reluctant readers or for readers who are new to comics. In fact, Andy and Gwen both enjoy Jason Shiga’s “The Case of the Missing Science Project” because of its interactive nature: panels in the story are connected by a series of orange arrows, and depending upon the choices that readers make, the story plays out differently. Gwen notes that the instructions could help young readers learn about panel placement, and Andy is amazed at the technical skill necessary for Shiga to present a variety of stories in such a small space. Along those same lines, Andy draws listeners’ attention to a couple of features at the end of the book: a template for drawing one’s own comic and a lesson on how to draw the Holms’ popular character, Babymouse. Both Gwen and Andy enjoy the humor and variety of Comics Squad #2: Lunch! and they inform readers about the previous volume in the series: Comics Squad #1: Recess!, as well as the popular Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics (Abrams), edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, another anthology that young readers might want to check out.

Next, Gwen and Andy turn to Dare to DisappointGrowing Up in Turkey, a graphic memoir by Özge Samanci, an artist and assistant professor at Northwestern University, who describes her upbringing in Izmir, Turkey, on the Aegean Sea during the 1980s and 1990s, during a time of political and social upheaval. Samanci attempts to please her parents, her teachers, and her friends by following the approved social script of getting excellent marks on her exams, enrolling in a university major such as engineering, and settling down to raise a family. However, as with most free spirits, Samanci learns that if she wishes to be happy, she must step out of her comfort zone and pursue her dreams. Published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Samanci’s comic has been designated for readers aged 14 and above. However, Gwen explains that while Dare to Disappoint contains some allusions to violence and sexuality, for the most part, the memoir focuses on the cultural, familial, and intellectual influences that combine to form Samanci’s path to becoming an artist.

Both Gwen and Andy praise the artistry of the text, noting that although Samanci studied the comics form for years, and has been publishing comics online since 2006, she resists the traditional waffle pattern that characterizes many contemporary graphic novels. She uses a number of techniques, especially collage and the judicious use of color and sightlines, to create a highly readable and visually gorgeous comic.

Gwen observes that one of the central characters in Dare to Disappoint is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic in the 1920s, whose emphasis on secular democracy, combined with paternalism, made him a national hero whose portrait was prominently displayed in every public building and in every home during Samanci’s youth. Just as young Marjane Satrapi engages in conversations with God in Persepolis, Ôzge confides her worries and desires to a portrait of Atatürk, and to give the reader a sense for how influential his presence is to the school children of her generation, Samanci recounts the excitement she feels when her sister gives her a large ruler that includes cut-outs of a number of shapes, enabling her to draw, as she says, “a perfect circle, triangle, square, and…Ataturk!” (40). Not surprisingly, the profile of Atatürk is the first one in a series of rows of cutouts, and as young Özge writes, “If you are going to draw Atatuürk, you have to draw him right. Otherwise, you are in deep trouble (40).

In a recent interview on the PBS program Chicago Tonight, Samanci pointed out that the cutout of Atatürk served an important purpose for the entire graphic memoir. She says, “I’m dealing with this cookie cutter educational system that traps people into a box which leads to occupations that they don’t care about. So it’s a beautiful metaphor for the [theme of] the book.”

Both Gwen and Andy note that Dare to Disappoint treated many of the universal conflicts that young people face as they come of age, while also providing a window on a fascinating time in Turkish history. They recommend Samanci’s text to teens and to adults as an engaging and aesthetically-sophisticated comic. However, they both also agreed that the first half of the memoir, which focuses on Özge’s early childhood, could make an interesting read for parents to share with younger readers.

Feb 5, 2016

Shea and Derek are back with their January episode of the manga series. But isn't this the first of week of February? Yes it is, but due to unforeseen circumstances, the guys had to postpone the recording of their January episode and had carry it over into this week. But no worries! They still bring you the same great quality manga analysis, and, in addition, this means that listeners will get a double dose of Shea and Derek's manga talk for the month of February!

They begin with Hiroaki Samura's Die Wergelder, Vol. 1 (Kodansha Comics). Those familiar Blade of the Immortal will instantly recognize Samura's style and know that they're in for a dynamic narrative punctuated with what some might feel are scenes of gratuitous sexual violence. In fact, Shea addresses this issue toward the beginning of their discussion, wondering if Die Wergelder might put off some of its readers. Derek argues that these kind of scenes serve a legitimate narrative purpose, especially as it regards one of the book's protagonists, Träne, building character and setting a purposefully disturbing context. This first English-language edition collects the first two volumes of the original Japanese series, which began in 2011, and introduces what is arguably the title's three main protagonists, women with uncertain and even tragic pasts whose stories converge in a narrative of yakuza wars and corporate intrigue. Next, the guys turn to Suehiro Maruo's The Strange Tale of Panorama Island (Last Gasp). Originally published in English in 2013, this is an adaptation of Edogawa Rampo's 1920s novel, a twisted Poe-esque narrative of death, indulgences, and self-reinvention. Derek highlights what he sees as the carnivalesque nature of the story, but a more appropriate descriptive frame would be ero guro (erotic grotesque), a style of art defined by eroticism, decadence, and sexual (at times horrific) indulgence. Indeed, Maruo is known for this kind of manga, perhaps more notably displayed in Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show and the stories collected in Ultra-Gash InfernoPanorama Island is more tame and lower down the "grotesque" scale than these books, but it's nonetheless a disturbing, nightmarish journey into human desire.

Feb 3, 2016

It’s the beginning of the month, so that must mean that it’s time for the Two Guys with PhDs to take a visual stroll through the latest Previews catalog. And Andy W. and Derek find a lot to highlight in the February issue. Despite a few frustrations — Derek doesn’t have a hardcopy of Previews and is at a disadvantage with the solicits — they have a fun and productive conversation discussing upcoming releases from

In addition, Andy and Derek share listener mail and discuss the joys of film noir and crime/noir comics. There’s a lot packed into this episode, so get out your order forms and follow along!

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