Friday, August 28, 2009

FTL # 1-2

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of the first two issues of FTL (Orang Utan, 2009).

It's always difficult to review anthologies when you don't have at least a couple of continuing characters and stories moving from one issue to the next. It's also difficult to decide whether it's worth continuing to read when you can't get invested in stories, but with 99-cent downloads and a handful of surprises, principally in the second issue, I think FTL deserves a look.

Despite the name, which brings to mind well-intentioned, optimistic SF, the first issue of this British small press anthology is really a horror book, with four of its five stories focussing on vampires, dragons and dark fantasy. Only one of the first issue's stories really got my attention, a fun little twister called "Bloodstain" written by Peter Rogers, with art by Nuno Nobre and Ian Sharman, although I did enjoy John C. Boins' art on another short. None of the creators really feel quite ready for a major series yet, but there's nothing truly sloppy or amateurish, either.

The second issue is a big improvement, thanks to a genuinely surprising and excellent opening story. Don't let the faux-Danger Girl cover fool you; "Morgan McFee and the End of Tomorrow" is every bit as good as the best of any recent Tharg's Future Shocks in 2000 AD. Sharman, who inked the best story in the first issue, wrote this story, with art by Melissa Hudson. The rest of the book is similarly uneven, and ends with its weakest hand (also, oddly, by Sharman), but I did enjoy seeing that FTL's editors chose to run the first installment of "The Secret Cross," a First World War horror tale by Steven Saunders, Stephen Lindsay and Dominic Vivona, across two issues, with a cliffhanger ending the six-page chunk presented here. For an opener, I am not keen on its structure - there's far too much narration and not enough character-building dialogue - but Saunders and his team look to have a huge project in mind and this is a decent enough taster.

Despite an overall lack of polish, I see a lot of promise at work here, with rising talent worth keeping an eye out for. The low price for digital downloads makes either issue quite a bargain. Recommended for older readers, though if you're skeptical, I'd suggest picking up the stronger second issue before trying the first.

(A complementary copy of these issues was provided for the purpose of review.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009


Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Fer-de-Lance (Farrar & Rhinehart, 1934).

Nero Wolfe is one of those great fictional characters I've always been aware of but never got around to reading, sort of like Roderick Alleyn, I suppose. That changed when I married a woman who brought two shelves full of Rex Stout paperbacks in the mammoth library she moved into the Hipster Pad. We watched a handful of the A&E adaptations from a few years ago and I enjoyed the heck out of them, so I gave the first of Stout's novels a spin last week.

Fer-de-Lance was first published in 1934 and it appears that Stout had his characters fully formed from the outset. That said, I believe that the Archie Goodwin of this novel is a little more coarse and abrasive than the rake that he would settle into, but his narration is just superbly witty from the beginning. I laughed aloud several times at Archie's sarcastic, disbelieving tone, especially when he mentions that he didn't know what those idiots at the White Plains DA's office thought that they had been doing for the six days after finishing an autopsy, as they clearly weren't investigating anything of value.

The plot is almost superfluous to reading Archie's reports about everything, and watching his humorous interaction with the hugely eccentric Nero Wolfe, but basically it starts with Wolfe agreeing to look into a missing persons case. That fellow turns up dead, which puts Wolfe and Archie on the case of a university president who died of what was said to be a heart attack on a golf course, but it was actually a bizarre killing arranged by their missing person. But while literally nobody seemed to want the president to die, the $50,000 reward offered by his widow is enough to sustain Wolfe's interest in the mystery.

Stout had written a few novels prior to Fer-de-Lance, and had learned enough to give his twisting, engaging plot a fun tempo and pace like a veteran craftsman. When I first started studying detective fiction in college, I read that Stout was one of the few writers who bridged the two schools of British amateur heroes tackling grandiose schemes and the more basic, Hammett-led hard-boiled California-based crime dramas. I can really see that, and wish I had sampled Stout before now. Well, I have almost two full shelves to read, and all the time in the world, so the next few months will be quite entertaining, even if I do plan to rotate him with a couple of other authors. (And find room and time to resume Sayers from where I left off several months back!)

The ABC Warriors: The Shadow Warriors

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The ABC Warriors: The Shadow Warriors (vol. 6, Rebellion, 2009)

Earlier this year, Rebellion released the sixth collection of The ABC Warriors. This book, "The Shadow Warriors," contains the longest of all the Warriors' adventures thus far, an epic written by their creator Pat Mills and drawn by Carlos Ezquerra and Henry Flint. It originally appeared in three "books" between 2003-06, and since I'm looking forward to rereading the original episodes as they come up in the rotation (of my other blog, Thrillpowered Thursday), I just skimmed over the book to get a good feel for it.

Honestly, this collection is terrific. The artwork is, of course, wonderful. Ezquerra is one of 2000 AD's best art droids and he really brings a great, dirty sensibility to the dusty sandhole of the terraformed Mars. But when Flint takes over, things somehow get even better. There's a genuine "shock of the new" feel to Flint's episodes, as our heroes' new, imaginatively-designed foes take center stage and the weirdness factor gets ramped up to ten.

Skimming this volume confirmed what I felt about it upon its release: that the Guv'nor was back in town and ready to kick ass and take names. We'll come to this point in Thrillpowered Thursday in a few months, but it's clear that Pat Mills' time away from the comic, during which he created Requiem: Vampire Knight for his French publisher, recharged his batteries to full. The 2003-model Mills was not the same droid as the one from the 1990s. Here, it's one wild idea after another, no preaching, no stagnation, just a constant escalation of mad plot devices and vibrant characters. If the previous few ABC Warriors collections had been frustrating for one political reason or another, then this is the one to get.

It's every bit as wild and excellent as it was when Ezquerra had last drawn the title in 1979, and the robots were riding on the backs of tyrannosaurs, armed with bazookas. This is that Mills - the one with the turbo-charged imagination creating physics-defying freakiness and making downright excellent comics. I strongly recommend you check this book out! (And keep an eye out for more about Requiem: Vampire Knight here in a couple of weeks!)

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack (Dark Horse, 2009).

When Nicholas Gurewitch ended his webcomic Perry Bible Fellowship a few years ago, it felt like the Internet was a little more boring of a place. I simply loved his constantly surprising, mean-spirited, dark little strip. It was what you might have read in a world where Gary Larson had successfully tried multiple artistic styles to accompany his gags.

Two years ago, Dark Horse released a partial collection of Gurewitch's strip, but they have superceded that with this larger, 256-page collection that contains the entire run. It's a lovely hardcover with specially-printed engraved lettering, and one strip per page on very nice paper. Additional features include thirty-two rejected strips, sketches and supplemental artwork, and an interview with Gurewitch conducted by David Malki. I think it's a splendid collection of wonderfully surreal and clever comics, and everyone involved should be very proud of doing such a fine job of archiving the work so well. It's a bit too adult for my kids, but if you're over sixteen, I'd certainly recommend it for you.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Letter of Mary

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of A Letter of Mary (St. Martin's, 1997).

In the third novel in her series of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes novels, Laurie R. King sees the couple's home ransacked and vandalized shortly after they take possession of a first-century papyrus which may be a letter from Mary Magdalene confirming what Christian doctrine has denied: that she was one of Christ's disciples. This happens while they are in London to identify the body of the scholar who left them the document for safekeeping. It looks like somebody wants this damning evidence silenced.

I find it strange, the way King captures the voices of other people's characters, and projects them to her audience, better than the ones that she created herself. By her third novel, she's got an amazing rhythm down for Sherlock Holmes, and writes him as well or better than any other writer of pastiches such as this. Mycroft, too, is as comfortable to read as it is watching Charles Grey put in a guest appearance in the 1980-90s Granada TV series. In fact, my interest in her revisionist novels was sparked by learning that Lord Peter Wimsey would be putting in a small cameo at some point. He's in this book for about five pages and he's so absolutely perfect that I can't help but wish that it was King who had received the job of completing Dorothy Sayers' unfinished Thrones, Dominations manuscript.

But Mary Russell herself I still have problems with. I can't visualize the character, much as I am trying. Sherlock Holmes's wife is a woman in her late forties trapped in the body of a 23 year-old. She never reads as being completely genuine to me, and is very much a product of the modern age, and not a character who could conceivably have been created in the 1920s. Further, the plot itself is very much of its time. Though it predates The Da Vinci Code by six years, it's still tapping into a very modern notion of the Church suppressing potentially ruinous old documents. Well, Irving Wallace's The Word, a book forgotten by everybody but me (and I only know it because David Janssen was in the TV adaptation), possibly started the zeitgiest back in 1972, but you still can't imagine a book with a mindset anything like this actually being written in the twenties.

That said, the book, while sometimes difficult for me to embrace because of the pecuilarities of the main character, is still a pleasant read. It's a story full of red herrings and misdirections, where avenues of investigation led me to expect an absolutely certain conclusion, and yet I was pleased and tickled to learn how very wrong I was. I wouldn't call this a great book, but it was certainly an entertaining one, and the three mornings I devoted to it were certainly well-spent. I shall have to tackle the fourth in the series next month.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Superman: Sunday Classics 1939-1943

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Superman: Sunday Classics 1939-1943 (Sterling, 2006).

A few weeks ago, I read the collection of three years' worth of Superman daily strips. Sterling has a companion volume available, and this reprints all the color Sunday strips - a separate continuity, as was the standard at the time - from the same period. I was surprised to find it a little more juvenile than the daily, with very little of the wit and imagination seen in the daily strips. The most interesting elements are the ones which reflect wartime life, with an endless stream of fifth columnists and saboteurs bent on interrupting the flow of war bonds. It's serviceable enough for what it is, but I think I would only recommend this for collectors or nostalgists who've already tried the book of dailies.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Kidnapped (Tundra, 2007).

I never read Kidnapped when I was the target age for it. I seem to remember enjoying two or three of Robert Louis Stevenson's novels when I was in middle school, but never found the time for this one. Anyway, a few years ago, the city of Edinburgh tried a neat little initiative to get everybody in town reading the same book, and four editions of this classic were prepared. These were the original novel with annotations, an edition "translated" into Lowland Scots dialect, a version for younger readers, and this comic adaptation by 2000 AD veterans Alan Grant and Cam Kennedy.

I'd been intending to try this one out ever since it was announced, but only found a copy last month at Boston's wonderful Million Year Picnic. The story's certainly good escapist fun - it's about David Balfour, a seventeen year-old who learns, after his parents' deaths, that an estate inheritance awaits him, only to be betrayed by his greedy uncle and sold into slavery and bound for the Carolinas. But world events overtake the ship, and a chance meeting with Alan Breck Stewart sees the two released on the mainland, where the politics of the time, just after the Jacobite Rebellion, have Stewarts and Campbells at loggerheads, and soon both men are on the run after the assassination of the king's agent Colin Roy.

As for the adaptation, I think that Alan Grant did the best he could with the page count assigned, but looking over what was omitted from the original novel for space reasons, you can't help but wish the publishers could have paid out to make this a little longer. Yet the price isn't completely unreasonable for 64 pages of such glorious Cam Kennedy artwork. Kennedy's been overlooked by fandom for far too long; this is fantastic stuff, and certainly worth keeping an eye out for a copy. I hope that my son will enjoy it!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bring On the Bad Guys

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Bring on the Bad Guys (Fireside, 1976)

In the 1970s, one of Simon & Schuster's divisions launched an annual collection of Marvel Comics reprints. I guess there were ten of these, reasonably priced samplers of mostly Stan Lee-scripted superhero smash-ups, and they were certainly the gateway drug for millions of kids who'd never seen much of the classic 1960s Marvel work.

These days, these sort of samplers seem pretty quaint and silly in the wake of so much reprinted material available. I found my copy of Bring on the Bad Guys - an extremely nice first edition for $5 - at the old Lakewood Antique Market in 2004, and there's nothing in it that hasn't since been collected in the pages of Marvel's Essential line. Each chapter has one or two stories, or some multi-part adventures, telling the tales of those nefarious nasties Doctor Doom, the Red Skull, Loki, the Green Goblin, Dormammu, the Abomination and Mephisto. These are names that should, if the 4-5 pages of introductory material for each chapter (penned especially and breathlessly for this edition by Smilin' Stan) have done their job, strike fear in the hearts of law-abiding citizens everywhere!

About half the artwork in this book is by Jack Kirby, and honestly, I was never really taken with his earliest work on Fantastic Four. This has got that odd little story where Doom forces our heroes to travel back in time and collect Blackbeard's treasure for him, and while the artwork is better than just about anything in mainstream comics today, it's not a patch on what he'd accomplish in just a couple of years. The sequence where the Red Skull kidnaps and brainwashes Captain America, and the climactic part of Thor's battle with Loki and the Absorbing Man, along with some short "Tales of Asgard" adventures detailing Thor and Loki's long enmity, well, those are jawdropping.

Just about the only thing in 1960s comics to come close would be Dr. Strange's initial, mindblowing battle with Dormammu and those Nameless Ones, which Steve Ditko co-plotted and drew, and it's just amazing stuff. I still think Marvel's criminally missing some sales by not packaging all of the Ditko Dr. Strange stories in a nice hardcover with good paper. There's sort of a bitter irony in that the Spider-Man adventure included here would be the one which Ditko refused to draw, in which the Green Goblin reveals his identity. John Romita drew this adventure in sort of a lackluster Ditko imitation before his own style really manifested, and it ends up, visually, being the weakest thing in the book.

The Abomination story is drawn by Gil Kane, and it's notable for the almost naive take on the Hulk's power, which kept being described in the sixties as limitless, but nobody ever seemed to believe it. I think that's why I prefer the comparatively low-powered 1960s Marvel Universe. One cliffhanger comes when Abomination just smacks Hulk in the head really hard and Rick Jones starts screaming that not even the Hulk could survive a blow like that. These days, I reckon you could split the planet in half and it wouldn't slow him down. Yawn. Finally, John Buscema draws a Silver Surfer adventure, and he draws the hell out of it, but I've always thought that this was the series, among all others, where Stan's dialogue reached its overblown, overwritten pinnacle, and so I just sort of tuned out and enjoyed looking at the pretty pictures.

As a sampler or an introduction, this book's just terrific. It's one of those books that every aunt and uncle in America should have handy for when younguns visit. I mean, really, if an under-ten isn't doing a double-take at the sight of Kirby's Cap beating the hell out of enough Nazis to completely pack a hallway, or Ditko's Strange crossing limbo voids where nobody ever heard of physics, then you need to get that kid checked out. Something's wrong with him. From a collector's standpoint, it's also pretty handy. The next time somebody tells you they're not interested in Essentials because they're in black and white, you can show 'em this and compare the aggravating off-register printing and limited color palate to the nice, unvarnished, untainted Kirby artwork in Essential Thor volume two and settle the argument instantly. Recommended, of course. Now how about putting together some new editions of this and the two Origins books and The Superhero Women and the others, so folks can buy 'em again, Marvel?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ranma ½ Volume 10

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Ranma ½ volume 10 (Viz, 2004)

After its first four or five books, there's not a great deal that's different about any given volume of Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma ½. In each edition, you get two or three serialized stories in which either Ranma or Akane is beset by a clueless suitor, and you get some martial arts mayhem, and somebody's going to get kicked through a building. It's a low-expectation gag strip, and if you weren't enjoying the present serial when it was running in Shonen Sunday in the late 1980s, then a better one would be starting within a few weeks.

By the tenth collection, Takahashi had started her third year on the strip, and wasn't showing any signs of boredom yet. This compiles two stories, one in which the lovable amazon Shampoo - well, I like her, anyway - concoct a noodle soup which gives people super strength, and one in which Furinkan High School's long-lost principal shows up after an extended vacation in Hawaii, and he has a cunning plan to force all his students to get new haircuts, unless they can find a special coconut that he's hidden somewhere.

Honestly, it's really fun the way Takahashi keeps a story going which doesn't make any sense by outsider standards, but maintains a strong internal logic. The new revelations about the lunkheaded upperclassman Kuno come from somewhere on the other side of the blue, but they still make sense by the rules of the plot. It's all done with great charm and lots of wit and a style that can be equally lighthearted and mean-spirited. Even if this isn't a series which demands I pay full price for the next edition as soon as I finish one, it's something that the kids and I enjoy reading, and I don't mind picking up five or six volumes a year. Hardly essential, but fun enough to be recommended.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tank Girl Book One

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Tank Girl Book One (Titan, 2009)

Man, oh, man, was this a disappointment.

Two and a half years back, when I was doing a Wednesday "Weekly Comics Hype" at my LiveJournal, I talked up Tank Girl by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett like it was something pretty darn good, but I have to tell you, I picked up Titan's new edition of the first book and it just doesn't hold up at all.

That's not to say it's not a really great upgrade of the earlier versions. The previous Titan books presented Dark Horse's colorized reprints of the stories that had earlier appeared in glorious monochrome in Deadline. These new editions are not only resized to match the original comic better without squashing the art, but they're also in the original black and white, so you can see all the neat inking tricks that Hewlett was using, without that intrusive color.

Unfortunately, while these books could be a fabulous treat for Tanky's old fans, I picked up the new edition of the first collection up in Asheville last month and just wasn't taken with it anymore. It's possible I might have been spoiled by the new, hilarious episodes that Rufus Dayglo has been drawing for Judge Dredd Megazine for the last year or so. I chuckle over every episode of these new stories and their expansive, open artwork and choreographed madness, but Hewlett's cramped, in-jokey pages are too packed with words and visual payoffs are few and far between. It's pretty far from essential, but kudos at least to Titan for doing such a terrific job on the restoration, design and bonus information. The new episodes are terrific, but this, oddly, isn't anything that I'd recommend.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Shakara: The Avenger

A couple of times a week, I put a new book on the shelf and tell you what I thought about it, and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a short review of Shakara: The Avenger (Rebellion, 2008).

As I was mentioning in last week's Thrillpowered Thursday, two new series debuted in Prog 2002. First was Storming Heaven, which is written up in that blog today, but the second was an entirely different prospect, something which was altogether more promising. Oddly, however, by the end of its first series, Robbie Morrison and Henry Flint's Shakara was proving itself to be just as much of a disappointment as Heaven, albeit for different reasons.

Shakara certainly looked like something amazingly new and readers had good reason to be excited about it. The story begins with the destruction of Earth and the raging, vengeful boasting of the galaxy's sole surviving human, an astronaut who was in space at the time and is now a prisoner in one of those fight-or-die sci-fi arenas. And on page four, this fellow, the guy we thought was the protagonist, gets casually murdered by one of what would prove to be a host of completely, wonderfully bizarre alien nasties. And then the killer and everybody else get slaughtered when the series' real protagonist shows up: an indestructible, utterly alien, long-limbed, spindly, mad-eyed warrior with giant freaking swords on the end of his arms who blows the almighty hell out of anybody and everybody in this violent, wild universe. His only word: the mad scream "SHAKARA!"

Well, frankly, if that doesn't get your attention, I don't know what to tell you.

Unfortunately, within a couple of episodes, Shakara had devolved into a dull bore because every installment was exactly the same. It all looked spectacular, with Flint's fantastic sense of design and desire to throw caution and convention to the wind, but it got boring really quickly. It was not an eight-part serial, but rather a collection of one-offs and two-parters, and in each one, some new, ostensibly indestructible super-nasty would do something indescribably over-the-top and evil, and then Shakara would show up, prove that he(it?) was a heck of a lot more indestructible than the super-nasty thought it was, and then open a supernova or a black hole up under under their ass and rocket away, yelling "SHAKARA!"

I was reminded very quickly of my friends in Corn Pone Flicks and their wonderful film Star Dipwads, and how the producer of some space epic couldn't understand why his audience was disappointed, because he'd given them suspense, three exciting battle scenes and the actual appearance of the protagonist, and was aggravated to learn that they wanted a plot as well.

Well, Shakara returned for two more series in 2005 and 2008, and the fourth series will be starting in 2000 AD in one week. The first three stories are all compiled in this book, and it looks like Morrison's plan was to establish something wilder and weirder from the outset, using the patchy 2002 series as a launchpad for longer, more intricate narratives which readers could really sink their teeth into. When that second story started in the summer of 2005, I know a few people's eyes rolled, but we quickly got in line, because "The Assassin" is a thunderously cool little epic which piles on one outlandish SF concept after another as a whole gang of intergalactic bad boys, any of whom could headline their own wild series, gets together to do something about this idiot screaming "SHAKARA!" and fucking with the laws of physics.

And then the third series introduces a mob of robot anti-gravity tyrannosaurs and gives some backstory to everything, and it's utterly perfect, blissfully cool and unlike anything else in comics. Long may it scream.

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Muppet Show Comic Book: The Treasure of Peg-Leg Wilson # 1

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of The Muppet Show Comic Book: The Treasure of Peg-Leg Wilson # 1 (Boom!Kids, 2009)

Well, this is great. As long as Boom! keeps releasing Roger Langridge Muppet Show comics in four-issue chunks, I'll get to mention Langridge in my blog four times a year, with each new first issue. Everybody wins!

I'm certain most of the Muppet fans among you have been following this series since it started, but if you've missed out, Langridge has been writing and drawing a mad little series set in the confines of the Muppet Theatre. Each issue is effectively one night's performance, with recurring appearances of "Pigs in Space" and the other skits, running commentary by Statler and Waldorf (who are on consistently fine form), and unbridled chaos backstage. This time, the mayhem is going to continue for a four-part arc, as Rizzo the Rat gets his crew involved in a project to dig up backstage to find a lost treasure. Meanwhile, both Kermit and Animal are undergoing strange new personality quirks. Kermit's new laid-back leather-n-shades look doesn't seem to have too heavy an impact on things, but Animal, now a well-dressed vegetarian who communicates in notecards and cannot keep time to save his life, is really bringing down the Electric Mayhem's sound, man. What the heck is going on?

If ever a comic I've told you about is a no-brainer, it's this one. You've got one of comics' most consistently entertaining creators telling hilarious tales of TV's best creations. It's so darn good you don't even miss the celebrity guest stars. Recommended for absolutely everybody!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Everybody is Stupid Except for Me and Other Astute Observations

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Everybody is Stupid Except for Me and Other Astute Observations (Fantagraphics, 2009)

You know it's bad when crazy pinko leftwingers like me have become so inured by the increasingly rabid, neanderthal bellowing of the disaffected right that when somebody can articulate libertarian viewpoints coherently and persuasively that my response is one of shock. You mean there might be a genuine point of view held by the right that isn't scaremongering distortion? Holy crap, I hope they never let this guy near a microphone.

Anyway, Peter Bagge has been doing a spectacular short comics (none more than four pages) for Reason magazine for ten years now, tackling everything from monorails to Christian "rock" to high-priced sports arenas to Amtrak to Ron Paul's campaign. Admittedly, Bagge's artwork is really tough to love - nobody in any field of illustration looks quite so ugly as an aging, bloviating windbag standing with his trophy wife on the steps of some capitol building, as depicted by Bagge - but if you can finish this book and think of a better political cartoonist in the country, good luck to you. Given the space to detail his arguments and research, and deliver them in a concise, clear, entertaining way, Bagge's work in this field is never less than fascinating.

And here's the real acid test: I like downtown businesses, and going to see basketball games, and at least in theory I like Amtrak, but after Bagge's demolition of the government boondoggery pulling strings behind them, I'm left scratching my head wondering how to respond. Well, heck, maybe high-speed rail isn't such a good idea. I have to agree with Reason's editor-in-chief, who notes in his introduction that regardless of whether you agree with him, Bagge makes you think.

Fantagraphics' collection of this material, which is grouped by theme rather than chronology, is pretty impressive, although I think it suffers a little for the lack of credits beyond the copyright dates in each piece. It's not clear whether this is a complete set of the Reason strips, either. But these are design quibbles; it's a very nice package, and Bagge's work is both hilarious and thoughtful, so this comes highly recommended.

Castle Waiting, vol. 1

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Castle Waiting, volume one (Fantagraphics, 2006)

Honestly, I'm no fan of fantasy fiction. If it even looks like somebody's D&D campaign, I lose interest. But I'll give the comics that my wife reads a look-see, and often I'm at least a little pleased by what I find. That's the case with Linda Medley's Castle Waiting, a charming if not essential book that has been sporadically appearing through several publishers for many years. In 2006, Fantagraphics released this gorgeous hardback collection of the first 450-odd pages of story. Seriously, the book is beautifully designed by Adam Grano, and everything from the endpapers to the "from the library of" page to the paper stock perfectly complements Medley's attractive artwork and makes this really stand out as something special.

Unfortunately, I wasn't as taken with the story as I was the artwork or the package. Medley has created a world around a place - a castle that was once lost to time due to a century-long curse and now serves as a refuge - and slowly built a small cast around it. There's a relaxed pace to her storytelling that is sometimes frustrating, either because characters abruptly leave the narrative (did I miss something, or what became of Princess Medora?), or because the narrative sometimes slows to glacial pace to linger on backstory for ages and ages. It seems like a third of the book is devoted to the tales of an order of bearded nuns and how they gained control of a nearby town's mill, but it's all done quite bloodlessly, with no sense of urgency or importance.

For a rainy day read from your library in a bay window, Castle Waiting is perfectly charming and pleasant for what it is, but it's so meatless that you won't lose any sleep waiting for a second volume. Recommended for fans of the genre, I suppose.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Doctor Who: A Cold Day in Hell!

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Doctor Who: A Cold Day in Hell! (Panini, 2009)

We've reached the point in these collections of the Doctor Who strip where I originally stopped buying the magazine, so I was pretty interested in checking this book out. I'm kind of hazy as to why I quit reading, but I sort of recall that the price went up and they dropped eight pages back in 1987. I'm also pretty sure that I enjoyed Sylvester McCoy's Doctor more than anybody else that I knew at the time, but my enthusiasm had still ebbed after a couple of years of fandom. I also seem to recall one issue's cover with McCoy and Richard Briers making stupid faces at each other, and lit so they looked like a couple of ugly jack o'lanterns and deciding my money would be better spent on Siouxsie and the Banshees records.

Inside, the comic was going through some radical changes. In the seven pages of commentary in this collection, John Freeman interviews the comic's editor, Richard Starkings, who confirmed that the magazine was going through some belt-tightening at the time, and that artist John Ridgway, who had drawn the strip since the first Colin Baker episode, was passed over in favor of a rotating series of writers and artists.

The intent was apparently to follow the TV series' lead, as of course each serial had its own screenwriter and director. However, this simply doesn't work as well with an ongoing comic. Particularly in collected form, the inconsistent tone provided by having a new team for each story really jars.

As for the individual stories, some fail spectacularly, but some are pretty good. Freeman's two-part "Planet of the Dead" is a really fun romp, and I like the way the Doctor really seems completely lost, yet still in character, but it's undermined by Lee Sullivan's artwork. In time, Sullivan would grow into a favorite on Judge Dredd, but this early work is really rough and his storytelling is confusing, and the story's aliens, a shapeshifting bunch called the Gwanzulum, are just about the dumbest looking monsters in a series known for dumb-looking monsters. It ends up feeling like a rough draft for what should have been a memorable anniversary runaround, just a disappointment.

A lot of the book is like this, with novice artists just starting their comic career undermining a good story or two. Admittedly, neither Kev Hopgood nor Dougie Braithwaite were ever among my favorites when they started on 2000 AD a few years later, but their work here is just terrible. So is "Culture Shock!," a one-parter written by Grant Morrison and utterly ruined by a teenage Bryan Hitch, who would of course go on to far better things in the future, but who barely understands page composition here. It works the other way around in one case, though: veteran Alan Grant turns in a completely awful script called "Invaders from Gantac!" about an alien invasion of Earth totally at odds with anything else Doctor Who has ever presented, but somehow artists Martin Griffiths and Cam Smith make it look readable.

Elsewhere, among the 21 episodes in the collection, are two crossovers with other Marvel UK titles, putting this Doctor in the same continuity as Death's Head and the Sleeze Brothers. Apparently, these really aggravated readers when they originally appeared. Having never read Death's Head or the Sleeze Brothers myself, all I can say is that I am in no rush to go back and read any other Marvel UK series that I might have missed. These are just awful.

The best stories here are the first four episodes by Simon Furman and John Ridgway, before he moved on, a one-off by Furman and the wonderful John Higgins, and a creepy, clever two-parter by Dan Abnett and the returning Ridgway. Everything really meshes with these episodes, and I almost get a sense for what a regular team might have accomplished. While I honestly liked the artwork in this book by Griffiths and Higgins, the collection in some alternate universe where Ridgway got to draw the whole thing would certainly be a superior prospect. Recommended for fans only.

(Oh, one final bugbear about this book: while I realize that exchange rates often make it difficult to price things in advance, if you're out there, Panini, I really didn't appreciate ordering a book solicited in Diamond for $24.99 only to have it arrive costing $31.95. Seriously, are you going to do this with the supposedly $24.99 [see here] edition of "The Widow's Curse" when it shows up in November?)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Drifting Life

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of A Drifting Life (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009)

Honestly, I'm not completely certain that I was completely satisfied with this book. It's a memoir by Yoshihiro Tatsumi of his early days in Japan's fledgling comics industry in the 1950s, and it's a gargantuan read at 840 pages. If you're looking for anecdotes about life in postwar Japan, or how small publishers started finding new talent to get on board the emerging market for rental books full of short comics, then you will certainly find this a captivating read.

Personally, I found the book very frustrating for what it didn't tell. I take from clues issued by Drawn & Quarterly, and by the cartoonist Adrian Tomine, who has championed his work and acted as Tatsumi's English-language editor, that Tatsumi belongs to a school of alternative cartoonists in Japan, eschewing the fantastic series that result in worldwide fame and merchandising in favor of either crime dramas or slice-of-life stories, without continuing characters. Yet there is very little in A Drifting Life to explain Tatsumi's place in the industry, save some very nebulous attempts at explaining the differences between "manga," "gegika" and "komaga."

By the end of the narrative, we have learned of several stories that Tasumi has had published in a number of anthology books, but we never learn how these are received, whether they're considered important, or even whether they are available in English. My guess is that they aren't; Wikipedia suggests that only a few works, no earlier than 1969, are available here. (Somebody could really stand to update Tatsumi's Wikipedia page, frankly.) For that matter, I was also very curious what became of Tatsumi's fellow artists. Osamu Tezuka and Takao Saito both feature in his story, and I recognized about two other names, but who were these other creators whose work ran alongside Tatsumi's in the pages of Shadow and City and Skyscraper? What did audiences think of them at the time, and did they move on to greater celebrity in the 1960s and 1970s?

For all my frustrations and misgivings, and unhappiness with the way the book ends with many subplots unresolved, I do agree that there's much to love about A Drifting Life. The narrative at least starts out fascinating before it starts feeling obscure, and I do love Tatsumi's style, mating simplistic caricatures of his players with detailed backgrounds. I like the way he includes just enough artistic details to define a strong sense of place, but never too many for the panels to become busy and cramped. You can tell the book is a labor of love, and it is frequently quite charming, and it has certainly encouraged me to look out for D&Q's other Tatsumi releases, but I also think readers with more background in the history are going to take a little more away from it. So, recommended with reservations.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Iriacynthe (Riperman-Drukwerk / Blue Circle, 1982)

Well, this looked interesting. My wife's half-Dutch and I like cute naked girls, and I have a woefully small collection of European comics, so I figured this story by J.C. Servais was worth a go when I found an inexpensive copy of it. Like many of these sorts of books, it's a 48-page hardcover telling a single story. Set around 1900, the Baron Alexander du Boisier has a large estate and the respect of the workers and servants, much to the dislike of his aristo mother and stepfather, who disapprove of consorting with the help. Apparently, the baron's late father, who died two years ago under mysterious circumstances, also had disagreeably 20th-Century notions about being nice to everybody as well.

The baron is out in the thick woods of his property hunting a boar when he hears the siren song of a gorgeous fairy called Iriacynthe. He's immediately driven mad with desire and becomes obsessed with finding her again. The poor baron, he might need to be committed to state care and his estate handed over to his stepfather...

I really like the way that Servais creates a complete world and tells an involved, engaging story with it in so few pages. There's not a lot of room for character development, so the plot is really the only focus. Servais's artwork is really lush. There are very few solid blacks on the page, as he chose instead to use tightly-woven linework to suggest blackness. Copious fairy nudity makes this inappropriate for younger readers, but I would recommend it if you can find a copy for $6 or so, and I am curious to see more of Servais's work in the future.