-J. Michael Bestul is a writer for the Addison Recorder. Stephanie Ruehl is an artist who works in a comic book shop. They’re married and have a lot of discussions about comic books and graphic novels. Combine all that into a biweekly feature and you get “J. & Steph Talk About Comics.”
-J.: Last time around, we talked about comics we thought would make great tabletop role-playing games. By sheer coincidental timing, a new comic anthology about role-playing games had just arrived on our doorstep. As I flipped through it, I was reminded how much we love short story anthologies — and how I wish there were more of them in the comics medium. So, we decided to spotlight some of our favorite anthologies and short comics collections, starting with the book that inspired that decision:
Edited by Josh Trujillo, published by Lost His Keys Man Comics
-J.: Death Saves is an indie comic ode to tabletop role-playing games, viewed through the lens of characters’ deaths. It’s interesting, Steph, that we reacted in different ways to the same anthology, based on our backgrounds and experiences. Personally, I was engrossed in this anthology, even with some of the stories that didn’t connect with me. And I guffawed and chuckled at many of the lines.
Steph: I was a little ‘meh’ about it. I felt like there were too many stories for such a small book, and even though there was a theme they all pretty much had the same thing to say, so it got a bit monotonous to read.
-J.: I can see that. I read Death Saves from cover to cover instead of eating dinner, if that gives you an idea of how much I enjoyed it. Right around the part where the hate song to the gelatinous cube gave way to the story of the misadventures of a warforged hero, I knew I wasn’t going to put it down anytime soon.
The Dark Horse Book of…
-J.: For me, these four volumes are exemplary of what comics anthologies can achieve. Each of them had recurring inclusions — Gary Gianni illustrating a classic tale of the supernatural, Mike Mignola providing a new Hellboy story, Scott Allie with an interview, and another beautiful installment of Beasts of Burden from Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson. But they also had a lot of fascinating stories surrounding these mainstays in each volume.
Steph: I think my favorite is the Book of Witches. I’m drawn to stories of witches, as someone who’s always been fascinated with the history and practice of witchcraft. I especially like that there’s an interview with a Wiccan high priestess, to give the good side of witchcraft its due.
-J.: I have a soft spot for the Book of Hauntings. It was the first time I’d read “Thurnley Abbey,” I loved the Hellboy tale, and “Stray” is still one of my favorite short comics.
From Brandon Graham and Emma Rios, published by Image Comics
-J.: When we did our last round-up of #1 issues, we read but didn’t include the first issue of this anthology / magazine from Image. That’s because we tend to review the #1 issues that we love, we hate, that connect with us, or make us react one way or another. The Island just… didn’t.
Steph: I liked the first Emma Rios story, but I couldn’t really tell you anything that happened in the rest of the book without having to go back and re-read it. Probably multiple times. One of those where you end up re-reading the same sentence over and over, just to realize that you can’t remember anything about what you just read.
-J.: I think that’s it. The Island was the kind of anthology issue where I consciously thought about how this was interesting, and I appreciated the experimentation, but very little of it stuck with me.
Original miniseries edited by Mark Chiarello & Scott Peterson, published by DC Comics
-J.: Back when I read some of the core Bat-titles on a regular basis, I always loved the back-up features. Batman: Black & White captures that idea with a legendary lineup of artists and writers.
Steph: I think the very first story, “Perpetual Mourning” by Ted McKeever, is simply beautiful. Batman is performing an autopsy on a recently murdered young woman, and all we get is his inner monologue. It’s written in a way that gives Batman a more human voice, not the brooding, detached way I usually think of when reading a Batman comic. He praises the woman for getting a solid punch in on her attacker, and states that she mattered in this world, even if it was just to him.
-J.: Or the Bruce Timm story right after that, a tragic noir tale of Harvey Dent’s redemption. Or Klaus Janson’s moody action sequence overlaid with words from Thomas Wayne, or Matt Wagner’s stylish “Heist,” or… There are so many good takes on Bob Kane’s dark hero.
BOOM! Box Mix Tape
Edited by Shannon Waters and Bryce Carlson, published by BOOM! Box
-J.: I imagine some people had a similar reaction to Mix Tape as I did to The Island, but I loved it. The short comic form can be a mixed bag — as you mentioned above, too many quick hits on a similar theme can dull the effect. And too much randomness can make a collection feel disjointed. I thought Mix Tape made a nice balance of stories that were a lot of fun.
Steph: I had trouble staying focused on Mix Tape, to be honest. I enjoyed it the first few stories, but it started to get weird for weird’s sake, and sometimes that’s just not what I want to read. I did enjoy “the Midas Flesh.” Anthropomorphic dinosaurs of the future!
-J.: For me, it was juuuust the right amount of weird. Space dinosaurs that discovered a gold-covered Earth? A Lumberjane who has her own pet raptor? A Munchkin comic in print?! That’s a Mix Tape I can jam to.
Written by Neil Gaiman, published by Vertigo
Steph: The Sandman is one of my (and many other people’s) favorite comics, and I was so excited when Endless Nights came out. An anthology of stories of each Endless sibling, and it did not disappoint.
-J.: It’s also not the first time a Sandman book was a collection of short stories. The original series had two volumes that fit this mold — Fables & Reflections, and the “stories within a story” narrative, World’s End. We’re both fans of Gaiman’s ability to tell memorable prose stories in short form, and he’s just as skilled in the comics medium. Each story paired one of the Endless with an artist that could truly tap into its concept. I can’t even come up with a favorite story from Endless Nights — all of them are phenomenal, and very different from each other.
Steph: Moments from each chapter still randomly pop into my head. I think “Desire” (exquisitely illustrated by Milo Manara) the story of a woman who’s desire burned not like a candle flame, but a forest fire, comes to mind whenever I create a piece of art. These stories of immortal beings are so very human, they stay with you.
-J.: And while we’re talking about story collections from a single series, I have a bonus pick for this discussion:
Hellboy: The Right Hand of Doom
-J.: While “Nature of the Beast” is one of my favorite Hellboy stories, I added this bonus pick for one reason: “Pancakes” is the best two-page comic. Ever. That is all.
Steph: No arguments here.
To Sum It All Up…
Dear comics publishers: the short story anthology , whether in prose or comic form, is a thing that needs to happen more often. Please indulge us. Sincerely, -J. & Steph.