Sunday Substack Comics Rack: News, Reviews, and To-DOs

for Sunday, October 3, 2021

Coming Up: Substack Comics REVIEWS… Substack Comics NEWS… and Substack Comics TO-DOs!

Without further ado…


Lemire released the full first chapter of “FISHFLIES,” 23 pages, for all subscribers (free and paid) and available in the Panels app format (which I reviewed here, ICYMI). The artist/writer’s industriousness means he’s had pages and pages of this Essex County-like story at the ready in his vault for a while, so we’re getting very consistent releases of the story. Which is great because Lemire’s the kind of creator best enjoyed in larger chunks.

[Spoilers] Chapter 1 is an intriguing example of how Lemire never needs to write “big” (think Hickman’s complex universes and expansive implications) to widen the scope beyond the small-ish moments he focuses in on. Three adolescents encounter a parking lot full of fishflies in front of the convenience store, and one dares another to walk across them barefoot. Then there’s a strange and ambiguous flash-forward or a time-jump or a clairvoyant vision of a corpse consumed by fishflies in the middle of a field somewhere. And then we find out the convenience store is being hit with perhaps a robbery that involves a fishflies-covered victim or something. So in those 23 pages mostly covered with white space, fishflies-infested ground, or character interplay, we’ve traversed time and space maybe and telescoped a much larger story into this small moment.

Lemire has written in “Tales from the Farm” about his artistic development leading to the yellow-sepia pages and blue pages in Mazebook, and artistic influences Gipi and Benjamin Flao. He also admits to Royal City cutting short because the drawing and watercolor process proved too consuming. I enjoyed Royal City but I can see the benefits of the bargain Lemire’s made with ink washes and quicker color smatterings in Mazebook and, I assume, in “FISHFLIES.” Yellow-toned paper seeps memories. Blue creates depth and shadows throughout the page. And a faded orangey red appears as a pale shock of blood. Beyond that limited palette, Lemire lets other tools tell the story, and the impacts-on-story vs creator-time ratio lands at a good equilibrium. I like it.

The mysterious time/place jumps are a Lemire hallmark, and their explanations have sometimes worked very well for me (see Underwater Welder) and at other times only moderately so (see Trillium). But I have a lot of faith in “FISHFLIES” because it lives so close to home for Lemire. That said, the pages we’ve gotten show there’s more of a genre-tinge in “FISHFLIES” than the realistic fiction of Essex County, and after all these years of superheroes, fantasy, horror, and sci-fi, I wonder if that’s just going to always be expected from a Lemire story. I’m not disappointed.

In the first chapter, we got hints of Betty and Barney Hill’s differential responses to the UFO they spotted in the air on their way home from a vacation, Betty fretting aloud while Barney arms himself and plays the laconic protector. They were so thinly written as archetype model Black citizens (which I owed more to the Rod Serling-esque narratorial voice than their actual characterization) that I was more waiting for the other shoe to drop than ready to take those qualities at face value.

[Spoilers] In “BLUE BOOK” Chapter 2, we do indeed confront the aliens on the UFO in very stark ways, as the Oeming style of Powers and other noir-ish books edges into the Oeming style of Cave Carson and his aptitude for the weird… though just a little bit, appropriate to an alien encounter with these very stereotypical representations of UFO passengers.

All that two-dimensional-ness… for Betty and Barney, for the UFO and alien, for the turn of the 60s paranoia vibe… all that leads me to suspect that we’re in for more radical twists and turns. The speed at which we went from “maybe UFO” to full-on alien encounter suggests to me that these veteran creators are pacing out bigger reveals that will get us, by Chapter 3, to clearer hints of the departure this story is going to take. If I had to guess, it’ll have something to do with how their close encounter will meet with public perception of them as those upstanding Black citizens in 1961 New Hampshire community, whatever its race/class makeup.

Or maybe Betty and Barney are headed for space!

Zdarsky and Kagan McLeod are also releasing more chapters of Kaptara for Substackers, but I’ll hold off on reviewing those for now. Meanwhile, this week’s four more pages of “Public Domain” keep me feeling like no one’s taking better advantage of the storytelling pace of Substack weekly drops than Zdarsky’s “Public Domain.”

Zdarsky underscores in the post how he likes to fill backgrounds with “gags and details that inevitably get lost on the page,” and the Substack format (like webcomics that can include text commentary underneath) give Chip the chance to highlight that stuff, which is super fun for me. I always wonder if Zdarsky’s humor will get old for me, and it doesn’t really, not as long as it doesn’t seem to mask some real introspection or authorial purpose, but rather sorta… lubricate it. Which it does.

Anyway, “Public Domains” tidbit here stays interesting, as we’re introduced to the insufferable Hollywood characters who will Bojackishly play into this story, while we also see our main character Miles pressed into covering the “story” of the Domain movie by interviewing actor Blake Powers, which he calls a “puff piece” and obviously resents because of his association by his dad, the superhero’s creator.

For its density of storytelling and reveals, I’m finding “Public Domain” to be the Substack comic I’m enjoying the most reading in this format.

“News”! Or perhaps, “Views about ‘News’”

  • Substack has announced a “Writer-in-Residence” program and has kicked it off with… ADRIAN TOMINE! This was a clever bit of positioning, as it feeds into the company’s comics investment while forefronting a representative with solid literary cred. Of course, I subscribed right away, and I’m excited to see what comes of this month-long residency. For now, Tomine promises two posts a week for the month, and no subscriber fee for those. I’m curious if he sticks to text newsletter fodder, or if he’ll perhaps drop some past art, illustrations, or comics with some commentary… or even some new stuff! Whatever we get, it feels like a pretty big deal that Substack kicks off this residency thing with a bona fide cartoonist.

  • 1979 Semi-Finalist pulls into first. Kelly Thompson’s Substack, which I’ve been hyping here since I started, has accelerated into paid subscription mode, as announced here. The promised comics, “Black Cloak” with Meredith McClaren (co-creator of “Heart in a Box” with Thompson) and letterer Becca Carey, and “The Cull” with Mattia de Iulis (collaborator with Thompson on “Jessica Jones”), look really good. And Thompson’s work at Marvel has really won me over. I’m in for the annual ($70) level (the monthly is $7), but I’ll admit… this is the first of the comics Substacks I’ve been tempted by the “Founders” tier, which I ultimately didn’t opt for ($200). Not so much because of the rewards, which are of secondary concern to me, but the temptation just because I like the work so much, both past and promised. (Still waiting for Vita Ayala’s tiers…)

  • Exclusives! (“…yay…”) A number of Substack creators are now offering exclusive opportunities to purchase variants of their print comics, sometimes with signatures, often partnered with local shops, to their paid subscribers. So far, I haven’t taken advantage of any of these exclusive opportunities to pay $30 or $60 or something to get a signed single copy of a comic I’m probably also already buying at my local comic shop. Some have offered special access to

    I’m glad to see them offering these extra opportunities for deep fans to get something special, and often at the same time they encourage patronage of a local retailer. I’m still a little disenchanted with the ephemeral value of paying these rich annual premiums to be part of the exclusive few who get to pay yet more vast sums. I recognize the biz is the biz, and I don’t judge any of these creators for doing what they do to make their ends. I’m just being honest about how exciting (or not) it feels for me to experience my Substack subscription as an entry fee for further exorbitant collector-ing. Sorry for being a stinker.

  • “3 Worlds/3 Moons” posted a recording and transcription of their conversation with Grant Morrison from a while back, and they continue to regularly post background on the universes they’re creating.

  • “KLC Press,” the Cates and Stegman Substack, which I tried to hold out from but eventually gave in, have continued posting podcasts and livestreams and such. To be honest, I wish I was more interested. And to be honest, I wish some of the others I was more eager to support were building their community as robustly as this.


Alright, if you’re reading this far, you’re definitely one of the diehards, and one of the few. So another massive THANK YOU!

Two of the most regular post-ers on their Substacks have been Molly Knox Ostertag and Scott Snyder. While both do post promotional stuff and behind the scenes glimpses, their main draw for subscribers isn’t comics they plan to publish on Substack, but teaching about the craft of writing or creating comics.

I’ve been reading these posts, loving Ostertag’s detailed breakdowns of process, and dipping into Snyder’s Discord community, video and podcast lessons, and all of that good stuff. But I haven’t been too sure how to “cover” them here on the Comics Syllabus.

Meanwhile, if you look back at my feed, I once upon a time posted a pretty rough, goofy comic strip I did as part of my teaching. I don’t pretend to be a comics creator, even an aspiring one. I can’t imagine how I’d find the time.

But I figure that maybe a good way to review and experience Ostertag and Snyder’s Substack instructional work is to try it out as a student, as a learner, as someone trying to benefit from their guidance as a creative person. And of course, there are stories and ideas rattling around in my head that I think about trying to tell.

So I’m going to try it here on the Comics Syllabus Substack, using their teaching and tips to try to craft a story of my own. No promises that it’ll come to fruition, but if any of it does, you’ll see it here on the Comics Syllabus Substack.

My idea? A webcomic that sort of serves as autoethnographic field notes about teaching in a Bay Area school, about schools, youth, cultures, and futures. Again, no promises about the work itself, since the only thing that trying to make comics in the past has taught me is that I’m terribly underskilled and lack the number one resource— time— required to become a comics creator.

But at the very least it’ll be a way to experience Snyder and Ostertag’s gifts to their respective Substack followings. Keep it locked here.

Meanwhile, here are things I’m still working on here at Comics Syllabus, for which I apologize for my slowness:

  • Comics Syllabus podcast is still once every fortnight. I love— LOVE— y’all paid subscribers. But there aren’t ten of you yet. Believe me, the minute we hit that many, the podcast goes weekly.

  • Continuing coverage of digital comics, graphic novels, and weekly new comics releases in “Polybagged” will keep coming primarily through the Comics Syllabus podcast. I’m still reading, and I’ll keep reading. :)

  • The Long Read. “Y: The Last Man” continues to be at the top of my pile, but a total silence from anyone on my socials and on those posts just gives me feedback that I shouldn’t necessarily break my back (or shutter myself from my family) to make those posts match the reading schedule.

  • I AM planning to come out weekly on Sundays with this “Sunday Substack Comics Rack.” Last weekend, our family took some time away after the busy start of Fall school, and during that week I had collected a grand total of five pages of Substack comics from my many subscriptions. So I skipped the week, disappointed (as maybe some of you are so far) with the minuscule amount of comics we’re getting from these subscriptions, and maybe feeling a bit disenchanted with those creators we followed here who seem to already write with a bit of annoyance at the expectations we’d hear from them. It’s starting to feel like 1993 Image Comics, and little Paul riding his bike to the comic shop week after week to ask if “Spawn” is out yet.

So thanks much for hanging out with me, and I hope you’re doing well this October. Our family already has our Halloween costumes set. My kid is going to be Jubilee. So I couldn’t resist… I’m Wolverine. Pictures to come. Take care.