In normal times—ahhh, remember those?—Phoenix Comics & Games is where I went for game nights and geek gossip. Quarantine shut the shop down just as they completed an expansion, and a smash-and-grab left their storefront in pieces. But as the name suggests, they’ve found new life; and when I visited this week to flip through new releases, something magic happened.
First, a passing friend popped in and we caught up about our respective role-playing games; then, a stranger started a conversation about The Dark Crystal; meanwhile, two customers who may have been on a date shared their favorite books with each other. It felt normal, and fun, and exciting to have a brief escape from the pandemic and wildfire outside; and as much as Phoenix has found new life for itself, the worlds on the shelves offer infinite new experiences that have never been more urgent to escape into, if just for a while.
And in that spirit of escape, starting this week The Stranger is partnering with our Phoenix friends to bring you weekly recommendations and reviews, from new releases to back-catalog classics. It can be daunting to know where to start with comics, so if you’re ready to disappear into a picture book, we’re here to guide you. And if you're ready to burst into flames and fly, let's get to it!
Let’s start with the illustrated Mueller Report because it’s the most readable government document I’ve consumed in years. I've tried to wade through the original report's text maybe a dozen times, only to be distracted by more exciting things like the shape of the lumps in my oatmeal. But this new book, created by Shannon Wheeler and Steve Duin, holds the reader’s attention with cute drawings; but the careful condensing of the report’s main points makes it a real pleasure to read, more like a tale of intrigue than a dry recounting of the facts. Maybe all government documents should be illustrated?
(Worth noting: The Washington Post also did an illustrated version, but it's not as funny as this one.)
Highlights include a detailed timeline, which effectively demystifies the whole bizarre “how did we get here” of Trump’s partnership with Russia, along with a gallery of relevant figures so you can keep track of which scumbag is which. There’s also a long section that lists all of the occasions on which Trump “couldn’t remember” details that sure seem like they would be incriminating.
At a time crowded with important news that all seems bafflingly incomprehensible, Wheeler’s book produces a sensation that’s become almost totally alien: Understanding. I’d nearly forgotten what it feels like to read the news and say, “Oh. I get it.”
Now on an arguably lighter note, I can’t even begin to tell you how much I wanted to enjoy Netflix’s adaptation of The Umbrella Academy, because every ingredient sounds completely tantalizing: Superhero siblings with a dark past and dysfunctional family full of ghosts and robots and ape-men? Smashing. But the screen adaptation’s sluggish pace (not to mention dialogue that works better on the page than coming out of someone's mouth) didn’t do the source material any favors, which is why I’m pleased to return to print with You Look Like Death, a miniseries focusing on the hard-living Klaus/Seance character.
Issue 1 finds Klaus kicked out of the academy and cast into the wide weird world for a drug-addled romp before hitting the road for Los Angeles, a city nearly as uncaring and cruel as he is. But the real star of this book is the art (fantastic work by I.N.J. Culbard), which features little details that continuously reward the close study of each page. Umbrella Academy started as a comic, and I don’t think it’ll ever flourish in any other medium as well as it does here.
This might not be a great entry point to the Umbrella Academy franchise—this book will likely be a bit confusing if you don’t know the premise. But then again, it’s not exactly the most complicated setup (young people with superpowers do soap-opera drama at each other), so if you want to bypass the first series, or you’re ready to expand your horizons from the Netflix series, go for it.
When Phoenix’s Nick Nazar handed me a copy of Old Guard and said “it’s like Highlander, but gayer,” I felt my knees go almost as weak as my wrists. Where has this franchise been all my life? (Oh, right, on shelves for several years and also adapted by Netflix.) Somehow, this enchanting world created by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández has escaped my attention until now, which means UGH I have a lot of catching up to do because Volume 2 comes out this week.
When you crack open the paperback, you'll immediately be halted by the gorgeous layouts before being drawn into the twisty, turny intrigue. The premise is great: Over the centuries, a handful of warriors have discovered that they are immortal, and now fight alongside each other while searching for a way to undo their invincibility and find some rest. But behind the setup is a complex cast of weather-beaten characters embroiled in schemes within schemes, and half the pleasure of the series is untangling the internecine scheming around them. Another surprising aspect, which only emerges with regular reading, is the critique of our modern American health care system. Like the Mueller Report, I found myself closing this book with an unexpected feeling of understanding—in this case, about how capitalism undermines the value of human life.
And finally, for something a bit more bite-sized, consider the wonderful X-Men: Marvels Snapshots. The Snapshots series provides little slice-of-life moments, each centered on a particular character. This latest installment settles on Cyclops' early years when he first discovered his powers. This one-shot was written by Jay Edidin, whom nerds will know from the podcast Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, and his deep affection for the franchise shines in this meditation on what it means to have zappy eye-beams.
The story is brief, and it’s more of a character study than an adventure. We see our young hero grapple with the power that sets him apart and discover that his difference is his strength—okay, this is well-tread ground when it comes to superheroes. But the writing's poetry is a delight, and there's something deeply identifiable about his desire to make sense of tragedy. Scott desperately hopes that his life's chaos and the world around him will slip into some semblance of order, and hooboy, are we all on that same page right now.