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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: July, 2016
Jul 30, 2016

Andy and Derek take a few moments to make a special announcement. August 1st will be their four-year anniversary, and the Two Guys with PhDs would like for listeners help celebrate by responding with their well wishes! That's right, get in touch with them via voice message, phone, email, and various forms of social media to tell them happy birthday!

Jul 29, 2016

On the July manga episode, Shea and Derek discuss two recent publications that highlight, in different ways, the history of the Japanese medium. They begin with Seiichi Hayashi's Red Red Rock and Other Stories 1967-1970 (Breakdown Press). All but two stories that compose this collection were originally published in Garo, examples of the avant-garde coming from that publication in its heyday. Although not nearly as abstract and non-linear, Hayashi's manga reminds the guys of Sasaki Maki’s Ding Dong Circus, which they discussed in December's manga episode (and also a Breakdown Press publication). As both Derek and Shea point out, the stories collected in Red Red Rock represent some of the earliest of Hayashi's efforts, and they're noticeably more experimental, or at least less linear, than his other work available in English, such as Red Colored Elegy and the stories in Gold Pollen and Other Stories. Adding to this collection is an astute contextualizing essay by Ryan Holmberg, also the book's translator.

After their trip down Garo-inspired memory lane, the Two Guys turn to a work that delineates a much earlier chapter in manga history. The Osamu Tezuka Story: A Life in Manga and Anime is a graphic biography of a man often called "the god of manga" and published by Stone Bridge Press. Created by Toshio Ban (who served as Tezuka's "sub-chief" assistant) and Tezuka Productions, and translated by Frederik L. Schodt, the book appears to be a collaborative, or even corporate, effort to tease out the dynamism and the many facets of its subject's life. In fact, both Shea and Derek feel that there are too many details embedded in the narrative and that the book's 869 pages of story (not counting the substantive Appendixes) could have been paired down significantly. What's more, the tone of the the biography is blatantly reverential and becomes almost too much at times. Readers are presented with example after example of the seemingly superhuman nature of Tezuka, and with little insight into the contradictions and complications that would define any artist's life. Still, The Osamu Tezuka Story is a recommended read and a useful, albeit lengthy, introduction to this manga legend.

Jul 27, 2016

This week the Two Guys with PhDs turn their attention to three recent noir titles. But before they jump into their reviews, they talk about comics news and recent awards.

First, they congratulate Sonny Liew on receiving this year's Singapore Literature Prize for English fiction for his best-selling work The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. This comes on the heels of him getting the Book of the Year accolade at the Singapore Book Awards, held in May.

Next, Andy and Derek say a few words about the results of this year's Eisner Awards, announced at SDCC last Friday. The guys note that there are really no surprises in the winners, and that with perhaps one or two exceptions, those coming out on top in their categories make perfect sense. They are particularly pleased that so many of the titles and creators that they've discussed on the podcast received this recognition, and they are especially excited that so many friends of the show -- such as Craig Yoe and Tom Heintjes -- received the coveted Eisner.

After all of the awards talk, the guys get into the nitty gritty of this week's episode. They start off with an adaptation of James Ellroy's The Black Dahlia (BOOM! Studios/Archaia), the first in the novelist's L.A. Quartet. Adapted by Matz and David Fincher, and with art by Miles Hyman, the story springs from the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947. As with the original book, this graphic novel reveals the dark underside of Los Angeles and the post-war days of its entertainment industry. And it contains all of the icons and tropes that define noir narrative.

From there the guys turn to the latest collaboration from the superb crime-writing team of Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser, Kill or Be Killed #1 (Image Comics). This first issue has all of the trappings of the kind of stories we've come to expect from Brubaker and Phillips (e.g., The Fade OutCriminalSleeper), but there's a particular twist to the plot that recalls the supernatural tinges of Fatale. In fact, Derek and Andy aren't sure if what happens in the story is because of other-worldly forces or just the result of psychological imbalance.

Finally, the guys wrap up with yet another crime comic, Justin Jordan and Raul Trevino's Sombra #1 (BOOM! Studios). This story revolves around a young DEA agent, Danielle, and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of her father, also an agent. This first issue takes the narrative into some dark places, and the guys focus on this comic as a retelling of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In fact, the missing DEA agent is name Conrad Marlowe. How appropriate!

Jul 26, 2016

This month, Andy and Gwen discuss a three graphic novels for young readers that are written by pairs of comics creators. Compass South (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) brings together Hope Larson (ChiggersA Wrinkle in Time) with Rebecca Mock, a New York-based freelance illustrator, while the other two titles are written by Gene Luen Yang in collaboration with Mike Holmes on Secret Coders 2: Paths and Portals (First Second) and with Thien Pham on Level Up (Square Fish).

To begin the show, Gwen introduces readers to the premise of Larson and Mock’s exciting middle-grade graphic novel Compass South. Set in 1860, this fast-paced, colorful text follows the adventures of a pair of twelve-year-old redheaded twins, Alexander and Cleopatra Dodge. Orphaned as infants upon the death of their mother, the twins are transported to New York City to be raised by the kindly Mr. Dodge, a working class immigrant from Ireland who had once been in love with the twins’ mother. The children have received as an inheritance a pocket watch and a knife, and it turns out that these objects hold secret information that a corrupt pirate and his gang hope to uncover. When the twins’ father mysteriously disappears, Alex suggests that they travel to San Francisco and pose as the long lost children of a wealthy industrialist. In order to participate in the ruse, Cleopatra cuts her hair, dons boys’ clothes, and escapes with Alex to New Orleans. There, things become very complicated when they run into another set of redheaded twins, Silas and Edwin, who also plan to sail to San Francisco and present themselves to the industrialist. Chaos descends as the two pairs of twins are split up, and everyone from a street gang leader in New York and a violent, blood-thirsty pirate chase the children across the globe. Andy praises the novel for its character development and technical brilliance, and Gwen notes that the use of cross dressing allows Larson and Mock the ability to comment upon gendered expectations, both in the nineteenth century and today. Compass South ends on a cliffhanger that will be addressed in the second volume of the series, Knife’s Edge, coming out in 2017.

Next, Andy introduced Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes’s second volume in their Secret Coders series, a set of STEM-oriented graphic novel for middle grade readers. Set in the austere Stately Academy, Secret Coders 2: Paths and Portals takes up immediately where the initial volume ends, with friends Hopper, Eni, and Josh using the principles of coding to solve mysteries. Andy notes that readers will want to be sure to have read the first book before moving on to this second, but he explains that the effort will be rewarding. Secret Coders 2 is action-packed, filled with humor, and encourages young readers to learn more about coding. Gwen agrees, pointing out that even though a lot of instruction goes on in the text, Yang and Holmes present coding lessons as part of a well-integrated plot that follows the experiences of three highly developed protagonists. Gwen also encourages listeners to check out the Secret Coders blog for more information on coding for kids.

For their final review, Andy and Gwen discusses Gene Luen Yang’s collaboration with illustrator Thien Pham on Level Up, a coming-of-age graphic novel that was first published in 2011. The reissued volume is printed on a heavy, glossy paper stock that serves as an excellent medium for Pham’s masterful watercolor illustrations. The story follows Dennis Ouyang, the child of Chinese immigrants, who struggles to reconcile his love of video games with his desire to fulfill his parents’ wishes that he become a gastroenterologist. Given that the comic takes Dennis from grade school through to medical school, Level Up will be of interest to a wide audience, from middle school readers up to adults. After Gwen provides young listeners with an enthralling description of gastroenterology, the two PhDs consider how Level Up incorporates Yang’s interest in faith and magical realism, as well as his interest in describing the immigrant experience.

Jul 25, 2016

On this special episode of the Young Readers edition of The Comics Alternative, Gwen and Andy take a look at the 2016 Eisner Award nominees and winners in each of the three young readers categories. The Two People with PhDs discuss not only the books and their creators, but also the categories themselves, the changes they’ve seen in those categories over the years, and changes they’d like to see in the future. Gwen and Andy know you’ll find some great books here and hope you’ll share your thoughts with them once you’ve read them. (You can find a complete list of all the Eisner Award winners here as well as the complete list of nominees here.)

In the lists below, the winner of the category is in bold face type.

Best Publication for Early Readers (up to age 8)

• Anna Banana and the Chocolate Explosion, by Dominque Roques and Alexis Dormal (First Second)

• Little Robot, by Ben Hatke (First Second)

• The Only Child, by Guojing (Schwartz & Wade)

• SheHeWe, by Lee Nordling and Meritxell Bosch (Lerner Graphic Universe)

• Written and Drawn by Henrietta, by Liniers (Ricardo Siri Linders, an Argentine creator) (TOON Books)

Best Publication for Kids (ages 9-12)

• Baba Yaga’s Assistant, by Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll (Candlewick)

• Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War, by Jessica Dee Humphreys, Michel Chikwanine, and Claudia Devila (Kids Can Press)

• Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor, by Nathan Hale (Abrams Amulet)

• Over the Garden Wall, by Pat McHale, Amalia Levari, and Jim Campbell (BOOM! Studios/KaBOOM!)

• Roller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson (Dial Books)

• Sunny Side Up, by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm (Scholastic Graphix)

Best Publication for Teens (ages 13-17)

• Awkward, by Svetlana Chmakova (Yen Press)

• Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, by Don Brown (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

• March: Book Two, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Top Shelf/IDW)

• Moose, by Max de Radiguès (Conundrum)

• Oyster War, by Ben Towle (Oni)

• SuperMutant Magic Academy, by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn & Quarterly)

 

Jul 22, 2016

On this interview episode, Andy and Derek are pleased to have as their guest John Porcellino. Issue #76 of his long-running (twenty-six year!) minicomic, King-Cat Comics and Stories, has just been released, and the Two Guys talk with John about how different this issue is from his previous one. That issue, a heartfelt memorial to his cat, Maisie Kukoc, was more of a long-form story that may have expanded his audience. Andy asks John what readers who came to his work through issue #75 might think of the latest release, a more traditional issue of King-Cat Comics and Stories, and that question sets the stage for the rest of the conversation. Among the many topics John discusses in this interview are his processes of note-taking, the stylistic turning points of his career, his views on autobiographical comics, his experiences as a self-publisher and comics distributor, his philosophy of personal revelation, and the roles that music continues to play in his comics. In fact, one of the more interesting takeaways from the interview is John's understand of his zines as being analogous to record albums. He constructs them in the same ways musicians might pull together a two-sided LP. Along the way, Derek and Andy also talk with John about his book-length stories and collections, specifically Perfect Example and The Hospital Suite. This is an engaging conversation, one that is really a long time in coming for The Comics Alternative. If there is indeed a King of the Minicomics, then John Porcellino should be the one wearing that crown.

Jul 20, 2016

This week on The Comics Alternative podcast, those funky PhDs, Andy and Derek, discuss three recent titles revolving around the mercenary side of crime fighting. They begin with Jules Feiffer's Cousin Joseph (Liveright Publishing), the second in a planned trilogy of noir-tinged graphic novels. It is the follow up to 2014's Kill My Mother, a text that Feiffer discussed with the Two Guys in a previous interview. The events in Cousin Joseph predate those of the earlier book, making it a sort of prequel. In fact, many of the major players in Kill My Mother make appearances in this new work. Most notable are the characters Elsie and Annie, whose husband/father Sam becomes the central figure in the current narrative. Derek and Andy note the fact that Cousin Joseph is a more tightly constructed, and even a more ambitious, work than its predecessor, especially in its engagements with the sociopolitical matters of its setting.

Next, the guys look at the first issue of a new series by Kurtis Wiebe and Mindy Lee. Bounty (Dark Horse Comics) is a futuristic adventure focusing on the exploits of two anticorporate criminal sisters who eventually become bounty hunters. Almost from the beginning, the guys compare this title to Wiebe's Rat Queens, but both Andy and Derek feel that the first issue in this new series lacks the humor and cohesion of the earlier comic. Indeed, there were parts of the story that were unclear -- some of it due to writing, and some because of the its visual perspectives -- and the exposition at the very beginning unintentionally compounded this confusion. Nonetheless, the premise shows promise, and Mindy Lee's art went a long way in carrying the narrative forward.

Finally, the Two Guys wrap up with another first issue...sort of. The Paybacks #1, written by Donny Cates and Eliot Rahal, with art by Geoff Shaw, is part of Heavy Metal's new initiative to produce monthly ongoing series, but this isn't the first time we've seen this title. Last year Dark Horse published the series' first narrative arc, four issues recently collected in a trade, and now this recent manifestation picks up where the earlier one left off. Derek and Andy set a context by discussing the Dark Horse series and then segue into the new issue. The transition between publishers is seamless, with Cates and Rahal sustaining the humor and action of their high concept. But what really gets the guys' attention is Shaw's art, with its detail of character expression and more realistic flourishes. Andy and Derek comment that if The Paybacks is the kind of story we can expect coming out from Heavy Metal Comics, then we might just have a publishing endeavor similar to AfterShock on the horizon.

Jul 13, 2016

On this week's episode, the Two Guys with PhDs discuss three very different recent titles. They begin with the comics adaptation of Albert Camus's The Stranger, written and illustrated by Jacques Ferrandez (Pegasus Books). Originally published in French 2013 -- and translated by Sandra Smith -- this is a graphic retelling of the absurdist classic. What is most notable about their discussion is that the guys are coming at this book from different perspectives of awareness. Derek knows the work of Camus very well, while Gene had never read the original novella. This leads them to slightly different interpretations of the story events as revealed through Meursault's narration. And the guys' experiential differences also come through in their readings of the text's absurdist theme.

Next, Gene and Derek look at Bryan Lee O'Malley and Leslie Hung's Snotgirl #1 (Image Comics). This is O'Malley's first monthly series, and the guys were expecting a lot from this title. While both appreciate Hung's art, they're not entirely sure what to make of the story...at least, yet. At times it seems as if O'Malley is trying too hard to capture a particularly younger voice. And this is strange, coming from the creator of the Scott Pilgrim series. For example, both Derek and Gene are unsure of the story's emphasis on the "hipness" of blogging. On the one hand this premise seems passé, but on the other hand the guys wonder if O'Malley is just establishing a tone that he will critique in subsequent issues. Ultimately, while the guys are intrigued by this inaugural issue, they're nonetheless going to adopt a "wait and see" attitude and discover how the story unfolds.

The final segment of the episode is devoted to the latest issue of Frontier, the quarterly monograph series of new talent from Youth in Decline. Kelly Kwang is the artist of the most recent release, #12, a non-linear narrative surrounding a game called Space Youth Cadets. This isn't so much of a story as it is an exploration of the contexts surrounding such a game: what powers certain characters have, their storyworld, their clothing and accoutrements, and the designs that would distinguish the game in the public eye. Kwang's black-and-white art is both intricate and intimate, revealing a closeness with technology and social networking. Derek and Gene also say a few words about Frontier #6, Emily Carroll's issue that has just recently come back into print, and about the Frontier series as a whole.

Jul 11, 2016

For the July webcomics episode, Sean and Derek discuss three titles that not only vary in content and genre, but are also different in the ways they are designed and consumed. They begin with two current and ongoing webcomics, Kenn Minter and Clarence Pruitt's Tales of the Emerald Yeti and Jim Francis's Outsider. The former is just one of the comics on the creators' publishing site, Near Mint Press. In fact, the Two Guys spend a bit of time discussing the presentation platform of this webcomic -- Minter and Pruitt use Google's free Blogger service -- pointing out that its navigation and consumption feels antiquated and isn't what they've usually come to expect from most webcomics. Nonetheless, Emerald Yeti is a fun pulp-infused read of post-Vietnam America that has the feel of an old Marvel serial of the 1970s.

After that, Sean and Derek turn to Outsider, a webcomic that began back in October 2001, but whose updates are so infrequent as to make this a relatively young narrative. The guys mention that Francis's combination of 3D settings and 2D hand-drawn artwork are an effective means in presenting this hard sci-fi story. But what gives Outsider such a sophisticated edge is the author's use of mystery and focalization. All the information we get is filtered through the protagonist, Alex Jardin, and his inabilities to thoroughly read the alien cultures he encounters generate more questions than answers.

Finally, the guys wrap up this month's show with a discussion of a webcomic that concluded just last month. Mike Norton's Battlepug is an Eisner and Harvey Award-winning webcomic that takes the sword-and-sorcery fantasy subgenre into parodic, and pet-friendly, avenues. This story has been running consistently since February 2011, and it has been collected in hardcover editions annually by Dark Horse Books. Although both of the guys enjoy Norton's storytelling technique, they differ on its ultimate effectiveness. While Sean feels that the frequency of narrating scenes -- that is, visual reminders that the story of Battlepug is being told by a young tattooed woman to her two dogs -- disrupts from his enjoyment of the story proper, Derek appreciates these constant shifts from one narrative level to another, as it highlights the complex dynamics of storytelling. And this is arguably one of the book's central themes. Still, the guys definitely agree that Battlepug is a sophisticated story well worth reading.

Jul 8, 2016

Derek is back at his local shop, Collected Comics and Games in Plano, TX, to talk with customers and shop employees about the comics they're reading. And for the month of July, the topic of conversation is summer reading. Many of the shop regulars are there, and store manager Sabrina and her associate, Stephanie, join in the discussion, as well. The conversation begins with DC Comics' Rebirth titles and how the quality of those stories are resonating with the gang (most of which are Marvel die-hards). That discussion leads to talk about the seemingly endless string of Big Two events and how even publishers such as IDW are seeing the need to create crossover events of their own. Other summer reading for the Collected gang includes How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Jade Street Protection ServicesBountyThrowawaysAction Man, and Heathen (which was discussed in May's on-location episode). In addition, Sabrina also gives her take on some of the early releases she gets to read as shop manager -- e.g., Briggs Land and Black Hammer -- and Derek is appalled that at least one dedicated shop customer doesn't even know what Fables is. As is usual with the monthly on-location episodes, there's a lot of fun talk about a wide variety of comics, something to pique the interest of any Comics Alternative listener.

Jul 6, 2016

It's the first of the month, and that must mean that it's time for the Two Guys with PhDs to take a deep dive into the latest Previews catalog. For the month of July, there's a lot for Andy and Derek to discuss. And in between speculations on solicitation-writing strategies and disagreements on how to pronounce "gyros," the guys pack as much as they can into this almost-two-hour episode. Among the many solicits they highlight are from publishers such as

Jul 5, 2016

For this interview show, Gwen and Derek talk with Benjamin Frisch about his new book from Top Shelf Productions, The Fun Family. In many ways, this is a parody of Bil and Jeff Keane's The Family Circus. The narrative concerns the family life of beloved cartoonist Robert Fun and chronicles the threads of domesticity as everything begins to unravel. Fun has a strip very much like Keane's, a family-oriented single-circular-panel daily, but Frisch doesn't demean the legendary newspaper strip or take it into obscene territory. However, there are dark places where Frisch travels, and that's much of the fun of this book. Both Gwen and Derek ask their guest about the genesis of his project, his history with newspaper dailies, and his recent experiences in the residency program, La Maison des Auteurs, in Angoulême, France. They also discuss Frisch's background in sound production and his own work in podcasting, specifically with Jessica Abel (a previous guest) and Out on the Wire. This experience with Benjamin Frisch is yet one more example of the fruitful intersection of comics and podcasting.

Jul 4, 2016

How do the Two Guys with PhDs celebrate America's Independence Day? Why, by using the July 4th holiday to launch their brand new monthly series devoted to European comics. That's right, similar to what the podcast already does with its monthly manga, webcomics, and young readers programs, The Comics Alternative now has a new series devoted to the discussion and appreciation of European works in translation. Cohosting this monthly effort with Derek will be Edward Gauvin (a prolific translator of bandes dessinées).

The guys begin by describing their plans for the new Euro comics series and laying out a rough mission statement. At the same time, they acknowledge that the format of this endeavor can take shape as it grows, and they spend a good deal of time defining their terms. They decided to call the show "Euro Comics" since it best describes what they are attempting with the series. Other potential titles, such as "Global Comics," "Bandes Dessinées," and even "BD" are limiting in one way or another, and they're not as targeted nor as accommodating as the continental designation. What's more, Edward and Derek point out that their understanding "European" is a bit flexible, as it will allow for the inclusion of translated comics produced out of other regions, such as South America, that owe an immense debt to the various European traditions.

That being said, the guys jump into the core of their inaugural episode. They begin with a discussion of Barbara Yelin's Irmina (SelfMadeHero), originally published in German in 2014 and translated by Michael Waaler. As Edward describes it, Yelin's is a "Grandma, what did you do during the war?" kind of fictional narrative where she uses as a springboard her own grandmother's diaries. It's the story of a young German woman, Irmina, during the 1930s and 1940s who feels distant from, or ambivalent about, the rise of Nazism in the days leading up to the Second World War. Despite her initial resistance to the propaganda, she ends up growing accustomed to, and indirectly sanctioning, the atrocities propagated by the Third Reich. Howard, a young Barbados student studying at Oxford, functions as both a counterweight and a touchstone to Irmina's ordeal. As both Derek and Edward point out, this is a text with novelistic breadth.

Next, the Two Guys take a look at Frédéric Bézian's Adam Sarlech: A Trilogy (Humanoids), a collection of three stories translated by Mark Bence and originally published in France during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Derek begins by contextualizing the book as a graphic cycle, a series of interconnected stories, each of which could stand on its own, but taken together read with more "novelistic" depth and complexity than a mere collection of short fiction. In other words, it's the comics equivalent of literary short-story cycles (or, as some have called it, composite novels). The three pieces in Adam Sarlech function in this way, where certain characters (particularly Doctor Spritzer), scenarios, and geographic setting bind everything together. This is a macabre work heavily influenced by the gothic and weird fictional touches of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. In fact, the guys describe Adam Sarlech as one of the most sophisticated and exciting books they've read this year, European and otherwise.

Jul 1, 2016

On this episode of the interview series, Andy and Derek talk with Rich Tommaso about his recent publications from Image Comics, She Wolf #1 and the trade collection of Dark Corridor. Both were released last week. The guys begin by trying to wrap their brains around She Wolf, a surreal lycanthrope narrative with a 1980s flair. Rich reveals that this is a planned four-issue arc, and that if the interest is there he has plans to continue and expand the story. He contrasts this publication strategy with that of his earlier series, Dark Corridor. That began as a more ambitious project with more of an ongoing storyline. But, due to the sales, he decided to wrap up the title sooner rather than later. In fact, Rich speculates that crime comics may not be a current interest with the comics-buying public, at least compared to horror and science fiction. He also suggests that autobiographical or slice-of-life comics -- as found in his earlier works, Let's Hit the Road and Pete and Miriam -- may not be his forte, and that genre stories are more his style. You'll also find in this interview a lot of talk about film, crime fiction, and the recent HeroesCon where the guys first met Rich. So whether you like your Tommaso comics plain or genre-flavored, this conversation has something for you.

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