Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Death of a Ghost

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 Death of a Ghost (Doubleday, 1934).

Many years ago, when I first started tackling detective fiction - principally British detective fiction from the first half of the 20th Century - Margery Allingham was the author who broke my interest. I tried two of her novels about the weird, secretive Albert Campion and just plain gave up. In time, I came to realize that wasn't fair; what had actually killed my interest in the genre was that run of a dozen Agatha Christie stories that I labored through before I started Allingham. Frankly, twelve of those things and you need to set the task aside for a while, and not chase it.

I realized that I never gave Allingham a fair shake. I tried to make it up to her - I gave her name to a character in a comic that I published for several years - but I never got back to actually reading the Campion stories. Finally, I picked up two of them, cleared my throat and started again. Death of a Ghost has an appealing name. Published in 1934, it promises some unpleasantness in the art world.

It didn't begin well. Sixty pages in, all I had to say to myself was "Oh, Lord, it's worse than I remembered them." A mob of supporting characters, none of whom I could begin to sympathize with or understand, half of whom are deliberately unpleasant and vulgar, talked piffle about egotistical blowhards who died two decades earlier, and all of these bohemian idiots are suffered silently by the almost characterless Albert Campion, a bespectacled, secretive oddball who, thanks to the BBC, we now know looks like Peter Davison in horn rims.

Sixty pages in, mercifully and very, very pleasantly, a plot appears. There's the curious and cunning murder of a middling artist, and then something thunderously weird happens. The work of the dead middling artist just flat out vanishes. Somebody has gone to an awful lot of trouble - even for a period British mystery, where a crime's execution is usually really overwrought - to erase any evidence of Thomas Dacre's art.

Where this story leads isn't really very surprising. Perhaps in 1934, the term "ghost" was obscure and uncommon, but I had the perpetrator pegged ages before Campion did. Normally, that bothers me a little, as I prefer not to speculate about whodunnit in this sort of book, but the construction of this plot remained really fun and kept my attention. I'm looking forward to the next Allingham novel that I bought, and recommend this one with the caveat that the first sixty pages are an unfortunate slog.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Private Beach # 1-5

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 Private Beach # 1-5 (Slave Labor, 2001-02).

Many years ago, I was looking for a new comic to try and had read a good review or two of Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore. I asked some friends whether they'd ever read it. I'll never forget what my pal, the artist Patrick Dean, said about it. He called it "Hopey & Maggie fanfic." A few weeks later, the girl I'd end up marrying let me borrow some of her run and I gave it a try anyway. Patrick, as is almost always the case, was right.

I was reminded of that when I reread the first five issues of David Hahn's Private Beach. This was a comic that I enjoyed when it was released, but I never came back to it. Bumping into a couple of Hahn's more recent efforts like Suicide Girls recently reminded me of these and so I retrieved them from storage to give 'em another try. Well, as Hopey & Maggie fanfic goes, it's not at all bad. It's certainly well drawn.

The format is slice-of-oddball-life stories centered around Trudy, a brunette in her mid-to-late twenties whose community has more than enough weird coincidences, and distantly-glimpsed UFOs, than many other communities. There's nothing thunderously weird here; it evokes David Lynch without the violence or sex, just the feeling that something unusual is around the corner. There are roaches, and short-term memory loss, and peculiar nightclubs, but nothing really tawdry.

It's interesting to see just how much Hahn has improved over the years. The artwork here is pretty good, but stiff. Not a patch on how I remembered it, nor on how vibrant his current The All-Nighter looks, it's still very interesting to see how his work has developed. I appreciate how he seemed willing to draw everything, without many shortcuts, early on, even if he occasionally found cheats to get around skylines or bus terminals. Trudy, Sharona and the rest of the cast communicate so much more in facial expressions than they do body language. It's really a more interesting comic to follow visually than verbally, if that makes sense.

In the end, it does suffer from the giant impact that Jaime Hernandez's work has over everybody that has followed him. There's a letters page in the second issue; two of the first three letters reference Hernandez. There really is a lot of the same visual language, like quiet panels and long, empty streets of small towns, plus engaging, female leads who feel directionless and longing. When you add in the flying saucers that seem to hover behind the buildings of Private Beach and recall the superheroes always fighting battles far away from Oxnard in the Locas stories, it really does feel too familiar. It's a pretty good comic, but not one that I can recommend with any great enthusiasm.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Mean Machine: Real Mean

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 Mean Machine: Real Mean (Rebellion / Simon & Schuster, 2011).

I have previously noted that Rebellion, the British-based publishers of 2000 AD, have teamed up with Simon & Schuster for a line of comic collections aimed at the American market. A small majority of these are revamps of their existing line, but some of the titles are exclusive to the US. Real Mean, an introduction to the immortal, villainous Mean Machine, is one of these. Mean is one of Judge Dredd's recurring antagonists, an incredibly bad-tempered, foul-mouthed and small-minded petty criminal who can take one heck of a lot of abuse before he goes down.

I wrote this about Mean some time back: "One of Dredd's most popular returning foes, Mean Machine Angel was one of the nasty Angel Gang - a crowd of outlaws in the Cursed Earth who made life hell for muties and anyone fool enough t' venture too far afield from Texas City. Pa Angel and his sons Junior, Mean and Link were introduced in a 1980 serial called "The Judge Child," wherein Dredd killed them all. Mean, a giant man with a huge metal claw and a dial on his head which regulates both his temper and the power of his head-butting, was later resurrected by the Judge Child. Despite spending the bulk of the last twenty years in psycho-cubes and undergoing various lobotomies, hypnotherapies and surgical implants to curb his psychotic anti-social ways, Mean Machine remains an ornery, upitty cuss with an intense hatred of Dredd."

Over the years, writer John Wagner has gone back to this well, principally to exploit the character's huge comedic possibilities. More than once, some big-dreaming psychiatrist schemes to build his reputation on curing Mean. Since the character is as volatile as an atomic bomb, extremely wacky hijinks usually ensue.

This collection reprints seven stories of varying length, and is built around the ridiculous and wonderful "Son of Mean," a pretty long story from 1994-95 wherein Mean's previously unmentioned son, a sweet and good-natured boy who loves his dollies, is sent by his criminal mother into the city for some proper learning in the art of being rotten. Mean has no real idea how to go about doing this - he had no real idea how it was that he came up with a son in the first place - but it's a hilarious story which asks the immortal question: Can love triumph over stupidity and extreme violence? The story is painted by Carl Critchlow and the reproduction is a little dark - as seen in the story illustrated by Richard Dolan that opens the book, many of 2000 AD's artists in the early 90s had taken to painting with mud in a misguided effort to hitch a ride on Simon Bisley's coattails - but it's a story that still has me giggling after several rereads.

This is not a complete collection of Mean's adventures - such a beast would be phonebook-sized - but it's a very fun introduction. You get four stories written by Wagner and two, shorter tales by Gordon Rennie. The artists featured are Critchlow and Dolan, along with David Millgate, Steve Dillon, Kev Walker and Paul Marshall. The Rennie and Walker episode, wherein a captive Mean finds himself at the mercy of some even smaller-minded environmentalists, is an absolute treasure. Mean might have actually received some closure and been retired in the pages of Judge Dredd a few years ago. Time will tell, I suppose, but until he's seen again one day, this is a great book to celebrate his over-the-top silliness. Recommended.

Hey, readers! I have reactivated my long-dormant Thrillpowered Thursday blog for a short trial run. This will be the last 2000 AD-related review here while that's going on, and also, content will only appear here once a week during this experiment. I certainly appreciate your reading!