Thursday, June 30, 2011

She-Hulk # 22-30

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 She-Hulk # 22-30 (Marvel, 2007).

Here's a run of a title that I never really treated fairly. Some time back, I subscribed to a few books at an area comic shop to get a discount on a miniatures game. I was enjoying Dan Slott's run as the writer of Marvel's She-Hulk, but lost interest towards the end. Before I knew it, issues were piling up unread, then Slott left the title and, several months after Peter David replaced him as writer, I realized I had a small stack of Marvel superhero books that I didn't want to read.

I came back to them after several years and was pleasantly surprised. While never compelling, David threw some very interesting and neat threats towards our hero. No longer working as an attorney, as she did with such amusing results under Slott, but as a bonding agent, She-Hulk racks up some serious property damage while tracking down fugitives. I was really amused when the villainous Absorbing Man's references to his girlfriend, "the little woman," turn out to be literal, and there's a pretty interesting look at what happens when the authorities don't believe the only survivor of an alien attack foiled by our hero.

I'm not really all that familiar with David's work other than a run on DC's Supergirl that I enjoyed. Equally well-known among comic fans for his provocative, controversial and popular blog as his fiction, David's been doing this long enough to buck the slow-burning trend of taking forever to get to a story's climax. There are one or two misuses of splash pages in this title - at one point, artist Val Semeiks devotes an entire page to Iron Man casually sauntering into a courtroom - but David handles everything with confidence and wit, and apart from some terribly telegraphed plot "twists," this was not a bad read at all. Most of these issues are available in a trade collection called Jaded to which I'd give a mild recommendation. Not essential, but not at all bad for what they are.

Time for another short break here, friends! I have been rereading Sayers, along with some lengthy titles that I have already reviewed in these pages, and so I don't have anything new to share right now. I'll be back in a couple of weeks, and in the meantime, remember that I'm always happy to review your own work. PDFs are fine. I tend to focus on adventure or humor comics, detective fiction and food writing. See you later in July!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Essential Captain America Volume One

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 Essential Captain America Volume One (Marvel, 1995).

I don't think that I'll be able to give a better short review of this book than the one that my son provided. See, his mother gave him a copy of it several months ago, and it sat unread for an awfully long time. The boy's fourteen; he really has to be in the right mood to tackle something as big as this 520-page book. I don't know about your fourteen year-old, but mine spends his life in a constant state of restless boredom, and never wants to take on a project as big as this without the stars being lined up just right. Then, it's damn the torpedoes because he's going to read the entire book from cover to cover if he can. He gets along great with some friends that I have in Nashville, who would sleep for 48 straight hours in the buildup to the release of a new Harry Potter book, and then read the thing in one big marathon session starting at about 12.03 in the morning of its release.

So it was that I noticed my son crack this book not long after supper one evening, and he continued working through the book, changing from one couch to another for several hours. Lord knows how he did it. The first 160 pages of this book are very repetitive and episodic, featuring simple ten-page action stories without depth or feeling, just the remarkable artwork of Jack Kirby driving them. Other artists, including George Tuska in a really silly story about "sleeper" Nazi super-robots, will occasionally pencil over Kirby's layouts. In time, Kirby and scriptwriter Stan Lee begin introducing more subplot and structure to the stories, which start driving through a maze of grandiose villains and wild technology, but the first chunk of this book really was not meant to be read in a single sitting.

Captain America was not a character that I enjoyed as a kid, but he became one of my favorites when I grew up and began to appreciate Kirby. This is because he has the singular super-power of being able to beat the living daylights out of everybody. Not one at a time. Cap is a marvel when he's confronted by ten suited mob thugs, or twelve Nazi soldiers, or fourteen Hydra operatives, or sixteen oddly-helmeted agents of A.I.M. When that happens, Cap beats the tar out of everybody in a whirlwind of kinetic energy, blurring from one foe into the next in a dazzle of fists and boots and his mighty shield knocking bad guys down like tenpins.

My son's conclusion, when he finally emerged from the spectacle: "I did not know that Captain America was such a beast."

I can't do better than that. Recommended at the rate of one chapter a night for two weeks, and then the remainder of it in one mind-bending, jaw-breaking, skull-splitting session, but definitely recommended.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Taxidermist

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 Taxidermist (Rebellion, 2011).

Well, I am very happy to see this book finally out. There are so few comics available to star a protagonist as elderly as this one - in the first story of three collected here, taxidermist Jacob Sardini is in his seventies - and I am all for any feature that bucks the trend of dashing macho, he-man lead characters quite the way this one does. Sardini is an aging, overweight widower who figures that his glory days are all behind him, but sometimes events have a way of sweeping even the elderly up in their wake.

This is one of several collections that the publisher Rebellion has recently released that shows just how wonderful the world of Judge Dredd is for launching new characters and ideas. In the weird future of Mega-City One, human taxidermy is not only legal, but accepted enough that it's become an Olympic sport, along with some other downright ridiculous pastimes, as the stories reveal as they unfold. In the opening story, we meet Sardini, who had brought home the bronze for taxidermy twenty years previously, as he is contacted again by a mobster to whom he owns a favor. The mobster's son was killed in the first step of a new gang war, and he wants Sardini to stuff his boy, and the fellows that he brought down, without the law learning about it.

This story originally appeared in 1987, and it was six years before Sardini returned. This much longer tale is one of the finest stories that writer John Wagner and artist Ian Gibson have so far produced, a ridiculous and epic farce that sees Sardini representing his city in the Olympics again, with ugly politics shaping up behind the scenes. Wagner has always enjoyed mocking the world of sports - his and Gibson's brilliant takedown of the World Cup in a 1982 Robo-Hunter story is something that everybody should read - and everything about the Olympics, from the gaudy opening ceremonies to the competitions to the inane commentary by the television crews, is wonderfully and hilariously skewered. I think about this story quite frequently, as every single instance where I am consciously aware that I am blinking, I think of Agnes "Laser Gaze" Boulton, who features in just about the funniest thing I have ever seen on the printed page. Rebellion could probably charge the same price for a reprint of just her short subplot and I'd end up recommending it.

Rebellion's design team has done its by-now-expected excellent work. The book contains all of Sardini's appearances, along with a short cover gallery. Reproduction is just about flawless, on good, heavy paper. Overall, it's a very funny and occasionally touching story that goes off in unexpected directions and it's in a terrific package. What more could anybody want? Very highly recommended.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Feeding a Yen

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 Feeding a Yen (Random House, 2003).

I'm glad that I chose to save this one for a rainy day and not rush through it like I did Calvin Trillin's first three books about eating well. I loved the feeling of coming back to some of his cast of characters after they were introduced 25 and 30 years previously. Trillin's daughter Abigail no longer requires a bagel be brought with her to whatever new restaurant her dad has found, but he still plays on her loyalties to New York bagels in an attempt to get her to move back to the East Coast.

The focus of this book - insofar as there can be said to be a focus, Trillin's books being as magically rambling as it is possible to be while remaining coherent and compelling - is on local specialties, on foods that you can't get anywhere else, or, in the case of Kansas City-styled barbecue, you would not want to try. Whether he's tracking down ceviche in South America or taking advantage of a diverted flight to drive from Albequerque to Santa Fe for posole - might as well, he was in New Mexico already - he tells his stories with equal parts silliness and love.

The longest section of the book concerns a ridiculous restaurant - so outlandish that I found myself questioning its existence - in New York whose eccentric owner will come up with bizarre specials based on an in-joke, forget how he intended to make them, and then serve them anyway. It is a very funny and very inspirational set of writings - I would not be enjoying the fun of my food blog without Trillin, obviously - and it sure will make you want to eat. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Fletch's Moxie

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 Fletch's Moxie (Warner, 1982).

I'm afraid that, as I saw with the downward quality trajectory of Harry Kemelman, the 1970s were kinder to Gregory Mcdonald than the 1980s. I'd already been very disappointed with Carioca Fletch; 1982's Fletch's Moxie is nowhere as bad, but it is bloated and very dull for much of its page count.

This time out, Fletch, still claiming to be writing the biography of some obscure painter, is in Florida on the set of what sounds like a terrible motion picture. The star, a childhood flame, is suspected of the murder of her manager. Fletch, Moxie and her father decamp to Key West, and the Hollywood glitterati follow them, leading to chaos and race riots as events spiral out of control.

It sounds like the recipe for a story that I would enjoy greatly, but it's done with no passion for the plot, and a lot of really obnoxious characters. Moxie doesn't do anything to inspire Fletch's loyalty in this book, and there are passages where the prurience level gets so ridiculous that it all seems like the author is working out some squicky fantasies.

To be fair, Mcdonald very nearly pulls it off at the end, with a very satisfying resolution to the murder and a very clever twist showing how Fletch was also working on another mystery that I wasn't sure was actually something I was supposed to be following. Maybe this is a case of a very good writer getting distracted; I hope that it doesn't mean subsequent adventures are as tawdry and navel-gazing as this one. Not recommended.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! # 1-4

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 Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam! # 1-4 (DC, 2008-09).

I'm not really sure what happened and what went wrong with this comic book. DC announced Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!, written and drawn by Mike Kunkel, as part of their kid-friendly, all-ages line - and you can draw your own conclusions as to what the hell is wrong with that publisher that they have to have a separate, kid-friendly, all-ages line when they are in the business of selling superhero funnybooks - but it fell off the rails almost immediately. It appears that it took Kunkel the better part of seven months to complete four issues, so DC took him off the title and it continued for another 17 issues without him. DC canceled the book at the end of 2010.

Kunkel's take on Captain Marvel is following in the footsteps of Jeff Smith. A couple of years prior to this, that artist, best known for his cute Bone series, did a really fun Captain Marvel adventure for DC, updating the classic "Monster Society of Evil" storyline and bringing a fresh redesign to the classic hero. Smith's eye was exactly what Captain Marvel needed, and he did a perfect job using the character as a timeless hero of kids' fiction, totally divorced from the last several decades of navel-gazing superhero continuity.

Kunkel starts his ongoing story a few days after the events of "The Monster Society of Evil," drawing equal parts inspiration from Smith's take and from the Pixar film The Incredibles. He just has a brilliant eye for movement and posing; his Captain Marvel is a shoulder-heavy dynamo of power, and little sister Mary is an explosion of energy and speed. Frankly, you could fill his word balloons with solid black and this would still be a very fun comic to look at.

The story of these four issues concerns the return of Theo Adam, an evildoer with Captain Marvel's powers, given them centuries ago as a champion of Shazam but who went bad and has been in suspended animation ever since. Now reincarnated as a kid in Billy and Mary Batson's school, he instantly becomes an antagonist bully, intent on learning the Marvels' magic word.

I liked everything about this storyline, from the fun, kid-friendly setting of an elementary school to the mass destruction and calamity of these characters matching wits and quickly learning they can't hurt each other. Theo has just the right mix of classic villainy and modern obnoxiousness, and it's all drawn with a style and flair that's often missing from contemporary comics. It's a real shame that Kunkel only managed to contribute four issues; this should have been an ongoing winner. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Someday the Rabbi Will Leave

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 Someday the Rabbi Will Leave (William Morrow, 1985).

I think at this point I can safely say that I'm done with Harry Kemelman. I mean, for an average cost of a buck apiece, I've made worse investments, but the guy had maybe five pretty good Rabbi Small stories, at the start of the run, and then they petered out.

This one, at least it's not as awful as 1992's The Day the Rabbi Resigned, but it's still a chore. This time out, the rabbi's nemesis is the new temple president, a shrewd and tough businessman who wants Rabbi Small to perform his daughter's wedding to an up-and-coming politician who isn't Jewish. The rabbi says that they can have a civil ceremony, but not one in the temple, and if the president insists on bringing in some other rabbi to do it, then he will have to resign as president.

So the temple politics get loud and cantankerous, and literally half the book passes by before Kemelman remembers that he's meant to be writing a mystery and kills somebody. Unfortunately, he's chosen to kill somebody with absolutely no connection to the rest of the plot save one conceivable suspect. Look, I understand that detective fiction of the "cozy" school isn't really meant to challenge anybody, but even the lady who writes those The Cat Who books never crafted anything so lazy.

I finally looked up a Kemelman bibliography and compared it to all these books on my shelf. I'm missing the last one. I thought the one where Small resigned was the last, but he did another one, three years later. Maybe if I find it for a dollar, I'll buy it, but I'm in no rush. Not recommended.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Adventure Comics # 525

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 Adventure Comics # 525 (DC, 2011).

Time flies if you're a Legion of Super-Heroes reader. I remember when Power Boy and Lamprey were passed over for Legion duties - "better no new Legionnaires than another dead one" - when I was in middle school. With Paul Levitz back at the helm as scriptwriter, maybe only three years have passed since that story. DC wasted an awful lot of time telling stories set in an eye-rolling three separate discarded continuities before getting Levitz out of his old corporate desk job and back to work writing the Legion from about where he left off.

Since his return in 2009, the feature - overlapping stories between the monthly LSH and Adventure Comics titles - has really not been essential reading, much as I'd wish it was. It's nevertheless quite good for what it is. Levitz does a great job juggling a cast of hundreds, introducing new characters and spotlighting old favorites. Sadly, poor Lydda Jath - Night Girl - is once again wearing a variation of that damn ugly beehive that she had in the 1960s.

At least it's a very well-drawn ugly beehive. Adventure's current format has two stories, and the lead is drawn by Phil Jimenez, who evidently wants to be listed among the Legion's all-time best artists. I love the way that Jimenez is willing to draw everything, from wild perspective shots of future technology and architecture to big crowds of distinctively-dressed people.

Anyway, the main story in Adventure for the last few months has been spotlighting the Legion Academy, with trainee heroes misbehaving and figuring out their place in the world. I'm not sure that we really needed a new character with the same nebulous, restrictive powers as Chemical King, but I like how this balances nostalgia with something that feels quite new. It's a little wooden, and it clicks intellectually more than emotionally, but it's been a pretty good ride, and I like the way that Levitz is using the shorter stories in Adventure to fill in subplots and details from the main storyline in LSH. Recommended, if not too loudly.

*Actually, hold that thought. Since I wrote this review, DC Comics has indicated that they'll be revamping, remaking, remodelling and rebooting their continuity yet again, at the end of the summer. It is possible that Legion, set a thousand years in the future and therefore not bound to the events of every other damn fool DC Comic, might be spared whatever the hell the publisher is planning, but if the publisher is known for anything, it's taking a pretty good thing and absolutely wrecking it. You might want to hold off on spending any money on LSH comics until we know for sure whether they'll be continuing with Levitz beyond August. Better no new Legion comics than another discarded continuity.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The All-Nighter # 1

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 All-Nighter # 1 (Image, 2011).

The All-Nighter? That was the movie where Susanna Hoffs from the Bangles danced in her undies in front of the mirror, right? Some things you see as a teenager and just don't forget.

Well, anyway, after I bought a copy of the first issue of Suicide Girls but before the review went up, artist David Hahn sent out word that he has a new comic from Image, also called The All-Nighter, and asked whether reviewers would like to check it out. Happily, this is a much better bit of work than the Suicide Girls funnybook.

This story's about a twenty year-old art student called Kit who is trying to get out of a life as the lookout for a petty criminal - hey, art supplies are pricey! - and not having very much luck. Hahn plays a pretty tough balancing act to keep his protagonist sympathetic with home, roommate and romance issues while not going overboard with the pathos and turning this into something derivative of Jaime Hernandez. He doesn't quite pull it off from my perspective, but that's mainly because, extreme pinko liberal I may be on just about every issue, I kind of side with Ted Nugent when it comes to breaking and entering. Making Kit sympathetic to me is going to be a thankless task.

The artwork is just superb throughout, and while Suicide Girls, which was inked by Cameron Stewart, left the artist no challenges with its giant panels and boring settings, Hahn gives himself a hell of a lot to draw in this comic. When an artist is writing a script, he can cheat and get away from depicting the sweep of, for example, an incredibly busy and packed diner, or the very different interiors of multiple homes, but Hahn doesn't cut any corners. The comic simply looks great.

I enjoyed David Hahn's earlier series Private Beach, which really did veer too close to Hopey & Maggie fanfic, and am glad to see him still working in the medium. I wish that this story could have begun with Kit already putting the boyfriend she is trying to leave and crime behind her, but it's a very well-drawn tale with promise behind it. I'm curious what will happen next, and I owe a shop in the area a purchase, so I might just follow this one up. Recommended with reservations.

A PDF of this story was provided by the artist for the purpose of review.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

2000 AD's Free Comic Book Day Prog

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 2000 AD's Free Comic Book Day Prog (Rebellion, 2011).

Here's a book that, if I may say so, is long overdue. Every year for about the last decade, the principal comic book distribution company, Diamond, has sponsored this event where retailers order a bunch of comics to be given out freely to customers. The idea is that the comic shops will promote a big event at their store and guests will arrive to reacquaint themselves with how great it was to read funnybooks, and established customers will pick up a couple of new titles. 2000 AD, despite being the most consistently entertaining and rewarding comic book published over the last three decades, has never joined the party until this year. At last, there's a free 2000 AD comic to promote in the US. Free Comic Book Day has come and gone, but it's possible - in fact, it's almost likely, considering the leftover stock that I see in some stores - that there may be a copy or two floating around for new readers to try.

2000 AD is an anthology book, and this issue gives people a reasonably good idea what to expect from any given issue, with a quibble or two. Judge Dredd, as always, is the star of things, and the rest of any given issue is taken up with a mixture of recurring series, serials and short one-off stories. Here, Dredd is ably represented by a short story written by his creator John Wagner and illustrated by Val Semeiks and Cliff Robinson. It's a good introduction, letting people know that Dredd lives in a world where life is violent and technology is downright weird.

The principal backups are Slaine by Pat Mills and Clint Langley, Kingdom by Dan Abnett and Richard Elson, and Shakara by Robbie Morrison and Henry Flint. Kingdom and Shakara are each very recent and popular series - Shakara actually reached its bug-eyed, mad, memorable conclusion earlier this year - and they are each represented by their initial installments. Kingdom is the lyrically paced (if that makes sense) story of a dog soldier called Gene the Hackman, who, with his pack, is defending Antarctica from huge insectoid aliens. Shakara tricks readers into thinking that it's the story of the very last human, an astronaut who was in space when bizarre aliens destroyed Earth, but then it swerves, magically, and shows off that it is not about that at all. Both are completely terrific, and collected editions of each are already available in England. American editions, distributed by Simon & Schuster, will be arriving in a few months' time.

The Slaine story is a pleasant surprise. Slaine has actually been running since 1983 with a dozen different artists illustrating Pat Mills' scripts. The episode here is the first in a series of adventures called "The Books of Invasions" that was painted / photomanipulated by Clint Langley. Langley's tenure on the strip is available in three hardback editions, with a fourth scheduled for later in the year, but I don't believe that these are planned for separate American release (and, presumably, promotion) at this time.

The comic is bookended by a couple of short one-offs, a Tharg story from 1977 illustrated by Kevin O'Neill that introduces readers to the concept of this comic having an alien editor who programs robots to write and draw the features, and a one-page Zombo short by Al Ewing and Henry Flint which is just violent and ridiculous and wonderful. Frankly, 2000 AD should run silly little single pages like this more frequently.

As an introduction, I think this does a pretty good job, although I might quibble that it emphasizes the over-the-top, hyperviolent side of 2000 AD perhaps a little more than I might like. This led at least one store in Atlanta to restrict the freebie to adults only. (I protested that all Earthlet children should be exposed to thrillpower at the earliest possible age.) While 2000 AD, it must be said, isn't for everybody - and a regularly-scheduled, stereotype-avoiding, female-led series is long overdue and would help there - many of its best series are nowhere as dementedly gruesome as the offerings suggested here, and I'm not sure that this really gives readers a feel for how broad the scope of 2000 AD is.

Another eight pages could have introduced readers to the classical pirate adventure of The Red Seas or the weird Victorian crime drama of Stickleback or the Western-in-Hell Ichabod Azrael or the brand new cops vs. demons Absalom, all of which are certainly violent, but not quite as visceral and outlandish as what's on offer here, and I think that might have been a bit more of a balance. Well, now we know for next year! Certainly recommended.