Friday, September 28, 2012

The Doorbell Rang

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 The Doorbell Rang (Viking, 1965).

When I first wrote a short review of this book back in 2010, I noted how bleak and black-and-white it appeared. By black-and-white, I don't mean "lacking nuance" or "straightforward," but rather, I visualized it, then, as feeling like it was coming from the same white-hot, intense, paranoid land of TV's Naked City, The Fugitive and Route 66. These programs were all capable of light - the phenomenally bleak Route 66 even indulged in outright whimsy at least twice - but adult drama on television, particularly in the wake of Kennedy's assassination, picked up a really harsh undercurrent. The Fugitive's very premise is that the American criminal justice system has completely failed.

As I'm rereading Rex Stout, however, my wife and I are approaching it a little differently. When I first read the canon in 2009-2010, it was almost totally fresh, with only three of the television adaptations starring Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton preceding my reading, and those by months. Their visual influence over my reading had long faded by the time I got this deep into the series. This time out, I bought the box set of DVDs, and after reading each story or novel that was adapted, my wife and I sat down and watched the TV version.

The effect, over time, has been downright weird. Since most of the guest roles are taken by members of a loose repertory company, I found myself visualizing the settings, and casting, in my mind's eye, all of the speaking parts from the same crowd of nine or ten faces. When we came to a story that was adapted, I punched the air whenever that episode's casting director and I employed the same artist. And, after weeks of familiarity with the settings, the musical cues, and the house directorial style, rereading The Doorbell Rang had an entirely different, and much more colorful effect on me.

It is still, assuredly, an angry and contemptuous novel. Stout, inspired by Fred J. Cook's expose The FBI Nobody Knows, was incensed by what he saw as that agency's overreach, and crafted a labyrinthine gem of a novel where Nero Wolfe can just punch that agency in the nose and kick its defenders when they're down. The casual, albeit angry, acceptance among the players that they are being followed and their phones tapped is revelatory. Under Hoover, the FBI had grown too powerful, and influential people like Stout were justifiably furious. The right wing, then, could not imagine the government acting in such an intrusive and impossible way - it was, then, those subversives on the left who were undermining trust in a government that would never put regular Americans on unjustified surveillance. Say what you will about Ronald Reagan, the man certainly turned things completely on their head, didn't he?

The book's coda is one last bit of kicking, and it is completely brilliant. Not content with spending two hundred pages making the FBI into the villains - well, to be fair, there is a murderer at large here not employed by that agency - Stout engages in one last twist of the knife, a direct, blunt, personal and beautiful kiss-off to J. Edgar Hoover himself. I love it to pieces, even if, under the influence of the TV series, this previously stark and black-and-white narrative became musical and colorful in my rereading.

One last note about the TV series. Another adaptation, of The Mother Hunt, is, curiously, credited as being directed by Alan Smithee, the standard guild-approved pseudonym. It is usually deployed to cover a displeased director, or work finished outside their control, leading some viewers to suspect some behind-the-scenes unhappiness from an unfamiliar director, unused to the program's house style. It certainly doesn't bear the standard look and feel of the other episodes. Interestingly, among the cast, easily the most recognizable actor is Carrie Fisher, who has an incredibly small part, and whom you wouldn't think would have much need to trek off to central Ontario on what looks like an awfully cold shoot, for a single day's filming and all of maybe four lines. I wonder what director could have encouraged Fisher to join the production. Perhaps it was actually, in fact, Fisher herself? Just a theory, of course.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Aquila: Blood of the Iceni

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 Aquila: Blood of the Iceni (Rebellion, 2012).

Seventy years before Christ was born, Spartacus led a rebellion against Rome that did not go well. Six thousand prisoners were sentenced to crucifixion, their bodies lining the road from Capua to Rome. In a new recurring series in the pages of 2000 AD, one of these is a huge man named Aquila who, nailed to that cross, prays to every god and goddess whose name he knows for salvation and vengeance. One of their number blesses - slash - curses him with immortality and great strength, among other powers, taking away his soul while he roams the earth doing her bidding and bringing her more souls.

Aquila debuted with a one-off prologue episode in the annual extra-sized year's end edition of 2000 AD. Written by Gordon Rennie and illustrated by Leigh Gallagher, it actually has its roots not just in two thousand year-old history, but in something more recent. Thirty-odd years ago, there had been another series about a huge, soulless man fighting in Roman times. Black Hawk, written by Gerry Finley-Day and later by Alan Grant, and drawn by several artists, including the great Massimo Bellardinelli, only ran for about a year or so, first in Tornado and later 2000 AD, but it has always been popular among the comic's older fans.

In updating (or revising) Black Hawk, Rennie followed the template established by Pat Mills when he returned to the character of Bill Savage after twenty-something years, and also when he revamped the old MACH One series into Greysuit, but he also put some expected Rennie trademarks into the mix. It is a more adult series, certainly, with darker themes, sex, and more visceral violence, but it is also rich with subplots and the promise of much, much more at work than readers are shown. "Blood of the Iceni," the first continuing adventure for Aquila, sees him allied with Boudica as she continues the Britons' uprising against Rome around the year 60. But the Romans have superpowered allies of their own. This is a world where consulting entrails really can give visions of the future, and Aquila is by no means the only one to make pacts with underworld goddesses.

Aquila is off to a terrific start. The disagreeable practice in 2000 AD these days is to present only about a single story from each of its long list of continuing series each year, but there's just so much promise in Aquila that this simply won't do. This series would benefit, hugely, from a proper residency of six or seven months in the comic. There has not been enough of the series to collect in book form yet, but curious readers can hop on board by clicking the link in the image above and purchasing prog 1792, with part one of "Blood of the Iceni." Then be sure to let the editor know you'd like to see much more of this series.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


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 Playback (Houghton-Mifflin, 1958).

Playback was the last, and the least-regarded, of Raymond Chandler's seven novels about Philip Marlowe. Actually, I think it's better than its reputation, and better than The Little Sister, although the wafer-thin plot threatens to evaporate at least twice. This is a book that I read only two years ago, yet it seemed fresh and unfamiliar to me. There's a straightforward tail job and just two deaths, one of which is a suicide that turns out to be unrelated to Marlowe's case, but Chandler's command of language is so great that even something as comparatively simple as this - his previous novels were full of twists and confusing turns - is a real treat to follow.

But two things stuck out to me and invited comment this time around. One of my favorite of the novels is The Lady in the Lake, and that's despite a brutally ugly scene set in Bay City where the local cops - corrupt as sin, as is everything in Bay City - force Marlowe to drink in order to craft their bogus DUI charge. I don't know why this scene bothered me so much - Marlowe meets his share of crooked cops throughout the books, with The Long Goodbye's Captain Gregorius a really startling example - but that depiction of complete and unjustified nastiness and abuse of power from the police really did get under my skin. I think that the department full of decent policemen in Playback honestly goes a long way toward making up for that, and I like the humble way that Marlowe thanks them for being good to him.

The other thing has to be the amazing charged flirtation and eventual bedroom scene between Marlowe and his platinum blonde antagonist in his client's employ. Miss Vermilyea - what a name! - start off with the sexual tension at about a 9.9 and it escalates from there. The four pages set in her home are certainly erotic, but they're also just about the bleakest depiction of a tryst I've ever come across. Vermilyea knows that they crested too soon, and ends it instantly, hating it, hating herself, and turning him out to await a taxi, knowing that they'll never see each other again. It's so terminal, and her house so dark, that Marlowe questions whether he'd imagined the whole thing, until the taxi arrives. It's just too dark for words.

I also wanted to share that I suppose I'm like a lot of people in that I visualize a "cast" in the roles of the characters in a novel. Naturally, I had Humphrey Bogart as my Marlowe as I read the stories this time through. But after The Little Sister, I read that James Garner had played the role in a 1969 feature film that kind of adapted that book, but with Bruce Lee. I then reread The Long Goodbye with Garner in the lead, and with 1983-model David Bowie as Terry Lennox. You know, it's stunningly easy on the reader to hear this remarkable narration and language being read by Garner. Scarlet Johannson as Vermilyea, of course. Well, it's my movie. Recommended.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Snobbery With Violence

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 Snobbery With Violence (Severn House, 2005).

After reading a couple of the Agatha Raisin cozies, I found myself reading about their author, Marion Chesney, and after I finished marveling at just how many books she has written - she is a machine! - I looked closely and saw that she has written four in a short series called "An Edwardian Murder Mystery," set in the 1900s. An analogy can be drawn to Agatha Christie, actually. Her best-known series were the stories of Hercule Poirot and of Miss Marple, but she also wrote a few lesser-known books about amateur detectives Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Perhaps likewise, Chesney is best known for Hamish Macbeth and Miss Raisin's adventures, and here are these period pieces sort of hidden away, mostly unknown and unheralded.

The lead character in this series is Lady Rose Summer, a teenage aristocrat who turns to amateur sleuthing after she crosses paths with a young, retired military man, Captain Harry Cathcart. He, returned from the Boer War quite short of money, starts an interesting new career discreetly resolving the various and complicated social problems that the upper class keeps getting into, for £1000 an issue. Much to Lady Rose's aggravation, neither Captain Cathcart, nor anybody else, will take her investigations seriously, and, in employing a former music hall performer as her maid, she seems bent on ruining her own reputation. The scandal!

These two make a very fun team, and Lady Rose is a great heroine, a suffragette who is stymied in her would-be occupation by social conventions - it's very difficult to investigate a murder when sexually transmitted diseases are part of the motives, when nobody will speak of such unpleasantness around a young woman. With its insightful mix of the era's social custom, fun and vivid characters, and a pretty good mystery, this was quite a good read. I found myself enjoying it at the expense of Agatha Raisin, whose unpleasantness starts getting pretty wearing after about the sixth book. Recommended for fans of Sayers, Allingham, Marsh and that gang.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Judge Dredd: The Day the Law Died

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 Judge Dredd: The Day the Law Died (new edition, Rebellion, 2012).

I must admit that I am of two minds about this new collection of this lengthy Judge Dredd story, first published in 1978-79. "The Day the Law Died" is a pretty over-the-top epic in which a powerful senior judge who has completely and absolutely lost his marbles takes control of the city. Thousands of judges, brainwashed and bent to his will, go right along with him. Dredd, who had been out of the city for several weeks on a major mission across the country, had been missing out on the early stages of the brainwashing treatment and needs to be taken out. Soon, the city's top lawman is a wanted criminal, waging a guerilla war against a wild lunatic who gets advice from a goldfish.

Two years previously, the actor John Hurt had portrayed the insane Caligula in the BBC-TV adaptation of I, Claudius, and this, naturally, was the inspiration for this story. Chief Judge Cal - never "Judge Caligula," although that was the name of the original Titan Books repackaging of this story - instantly became one of the all-time great Dredd villains, with his every macabre and ridiculous whim passing into legend. At one point, Cal decides that he wants to make sure one of his lackeys is always there to please him, so he has him pickled. Somebody at the original publishers, IPC, was infuriated by this, fearing that children might attempt to copy it, somewhat missing the point that children have limited access to eight-foot tall jars or quite that much vinegar.

Rebellion's newest packaging of this story is in a new line of "manga-size" reprints, proving that there's no trend that can't be jumped upon six years after the iron is hottest. While I applaud the publisher for branching out and looking for attention outside the traditional comic audience, with our expectations for how reprints should be packaged, and genuinely hope that Barnes & Noble's buyers can be persuaded that this line can easily, and should be, shelved alongside everything else in the "manga" section of their stores, it is not a format that flatters the artwork. Digest reprints have always been tricky things since the artwork is shrunk down so much. With much more detail, and more panels per page, than American comic books of the period, these really lose some luster shrunk down so very small. It's certainly true that art by Brian Bolland, Brett Ewins or Ron Smith looks at least pretty good at any size, but you may need to have a lens ready to read the lettering. Or perhaps I'm just getting old.

This edition is recommended for newcomers or for completists. As the story is available in a larger format in the second volume of The Complete Case Files, however, I'll stick with that when I wish to return to it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Return of the Dapper Men

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 Return of the Dapper Men (Archaia, 2010).

Return of the Dapper Men, an absolutely charming children's book by Jim McCann and Janet Lee, is very much like a comic, but it's much more than that. There are word balloons, sometimes, and when there is a need for dialogue, the structure follows the conventions of comic layout and pacing, but it is really more of an all-ages storybook, beautifully designed, and desiring of a treasured place on shelves near your nicest editions of Alice and Where the Wild Things Are.

It is set in a place called Anorev, "a land of children and machines. Neither knew who made the other and both claimed to be the First." The scientific explanation of what has gone on here might invoke a phrase like "time has stopped," but the lyrical prose and slowly laid out explanations keep things simple. One day, a tock never followed a tick. And so Anorev, a world without adults and a world without tomorrows, creates a new paradigm where kids and robots don't like each other very much and a strange struggle, with rising tensions and uncertainty, keeps building until, in one of the most beautiful and surprising things that could happen in a book like this, 314 well-dressed men with umbrellas descend from the sky. They have come to fix things, but one of their number has a notion to repair even more than was planned.

This is a very entertaining and clever story, with gentle twists and unexpected developments throughout. As befits a fantastic fairy tale like this, the way that it is told, and the artistic presentation, is very much part of the experience. It's a truly beautiful book, fabulously designed, and I love the way Lee created the pages. A section in the back, following the adventure explains the "decoupage" technique, demonstrating how some of the backgrounds were created. The book is truly a labor of love that results in a whimsical and memorable adventure, and is recommended for all ages.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Judge Dredd's Day of Chaos

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 Judge Dredd storyline "Day of Chaos." (Rebellion, 2011-2012).

When the Judge Dredd comic began in 1977, it was without a firm grasp on its own continuity or world. Over time, new elements would emerge, and odd ideas brought up for consideration. For a few years, the comic, always under the eyes of John Wagner, who has probably written a small majority of the episodes and is acknowledged as the comic's creator and chief architect, placed Dredd in a city-state with a population of 800 million. After five years, this number was halved over the course of the legendary epic "The Apocalypse War," wherein Dredd's home of Mega-City One was invaded by the ruthless Sovs of East-Meg One. Somehow, Wagner considered 400 million a slightly more manageable number than 800 million. Evidently, he's since decided that even that number was too great to control.

From time to time, the events of "The Apocalypse War" have resurfaced to confound our hero. Survivors of East-Meg One were shown to have established a new government on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, intent on convicting Dredd of war crimes, and various sleeper agents and assassins have surfaced from time to time to make potshots at the city. But they've all failed, and frequently been shown up as blunderers, compared to what Yevgeny Borisenko accomplished over the course of the last year.

"Day of Chaos" is, naturally, the culmination of decades of episodes, and as such, no simple summary introduction can do it justice. That said, new readers would do well to begin their approach with prog 1740, from June 2011. This features the beginning of a three-part story in which Dredd's most cunning ongoing enemy, the serial killer PJ Maybe, escapes from prison. His recapture becomes a priority when "Day of Chaos" properly begins in issue 1743, but there are even more critical problems. Justice Department's Psi-Division has been a deteriorating failure for years, probably since most of their reliable operatives have died in action, but they have a very good prognosticator who foresees her own death and a disaster that will crush the city like nothing before.

With a Sov camp in Siberia preparing a massive germ warfare attack on the city, and PJ Maybe planning to sabotage the city's mayoral election, and suicide assassins at loose targeting key figures, and Justice Department planning for the unbelievable casualty rate to come in such an unthinkable way that the citizenry finally has decided they've had enough of their tyranny and rises in full-scale, city-wide open revolt, this rapidly turns into a spectacle completely outside of any hero's ability to solve. Wagner and his artistic collaborators, including Ben Willsher, Henry Flint and Colin MacNeil, kept this escalating for an amazing 49 episodes, wrapping in prog 1789.

A little over halfway through, Wagner calmly played his masterstroke. Just as it really looked like things could not possibly get any worse for Dredd and his city, somebody - I don't know that we ever learned who, or whether they had some particular scheme to control or direct them - arranged for a bent judge to release the three Dark Judges who had been in captivity. Brilliantly, Judges Fear, Fire and Mortis just killed everybody in the narrative who might have explained to the reader what the big idea was, leaving them loose within the much larger narrative as one more titanic problem to overcome.

And the thing that really worked was this: set among this kind of catastrophe, the Dark Judges genuinely don't change things for the worse very much at all. Judge Fear's one-at-a-time killings are visually impressive, but when entire tower blocks of a hundred thousand people are going mad from a lethal plague, there's not a lot that they can do, and their impact on the story turned out not to be a large one. However, they added to the spiraling sense and feeling that this truly was Dredd's darkest hour, their psychological impact almost without equal in the comic's history - I still contend that their original appearance is just about the best cliffhanger in all of the medium - and they left the reader gasping for weeks about how in heaven Dredd's going to win this one.

And he doesn't. The best he can do is survive it. The sun finally rises on a city that has been as ravaged as can be imagined. Of Mega-City One's 400 million citizens, only about 50 million have survived. Almost 90% of the population has been killed.

Where the hell do you go from here?

Unfortunately, most of the episodes that appeared since the conclusion have not really addressed the new psychological state of affairs, and the logistics of managing a world so blighted. There have, of course, been quite a few epics with high bodycounts before, but things routinely get back to normal really quickly, without the eye-popping sweep of death and destruction that this one has brought, and it appears that Wagner's fellow writers misunderstood just how thunderous a change this was going to be, and how readers would want to see "what's next" in a more considered way. "Innocent," a two-parter by Rob Williams and Laurence Campbell, appeared in progs 1798-99 and was the first story to really address just how amazingly bad things are now. There's said to be a comedic-themed one-off by Chris Weston in next week's prog 1800 to celebrate the new feature film, and then, we're optimistic that subsequent episodes will really dig into this new world order.

There's so much more to explore and learn. Mega-City One has effectively been the world's only super-power, and, in many stories scripted by Gordon Rennie, bully, for quite a few years. That's surely not the case any longer. We don't know how other cities have weathered the plague, and whether many of Dredd's gigantic cast of supporting players survived. The smart money's on most anybody who could headline a series of any length returning again, of course, but I contend that a great way to bring the cost home would be to just casually mention in passing somewhere that beloved recurring characters like Chopper, Juliet November, or Galen DeMarco were killed during the outbreak.

For something so wild and unpredictable to come from a regularly-scheduled comic is a real pleasure and a genuine surprise. Watching the status quo deteriorate and disintegrate further as the year progresses is something we are all looking forward to. I highly recommend readers familiar with Dredd start with prog 1740 - linked through the image above - and see what the heck has been going on. Those who don't know the character and world much yet, grab some recent trade collections and hop on board. This is one hell of a ride.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Naked Heat

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 Naked Heat (Hyperion, 2010).

There are two people who play the role of the fictional novelist Richard Castle. The better-known of the two is Nathan Fillion, who stars as the character on ABC's TV series Castle. He is depicted as a very wealthy and successful writer of mystery thrillers, along the same lines as James Patterson and the late Steven J. Cannell, who appeared two or three times as Castle's poker buddies. The premise of the show is that Mr. Castle, having concluded a series of books about a tough he-man hero, is looking for new inspiration and ideas and finds them in the shapely form of NYPD detective Kate Beckett, around whom he crafts a new series of books about a no-nonsense supercop called Nikki Heat. These, too, become very successful and he sells the film rights. This metafiction gets very, very fun. In one episode, guest star Laura Prepon played an actress named Natalie Rhodes who, cast as the film version of Nikki Heat, comes to New York to see how Kate Beckett works. Got that?

The studio and the network saw a good marketing opportunity and decided to sell actual Nikki Heat books, as they would appear in the fictional world of Castle, and that's where the other guy who plays Richard Castle comes into the picture, because somebody's actually got to write these books. The smart money's on the anonymous author being a gentleman named Tom Straw, thanks to some good detective work by readers and a cute little hidden credit in Castle's fake biography. Surprisingly, Straw's only writing credits for television have been situation comedies and variety shows for the last thirty years. This late-career shift into writing thrillers that have a publicity photo of Fillion on the back cover is a pretty interesting development. Since Straw's not really able to acknowledge that he's the author of the books, it will probably be some time before we learn how he got the job.

Assuming, wrongly, that these novels - a fourth is due this month - were somewhere near the lowest rung, I was not interested in sampling them. I'm not unfamiliar with the thriller genre, although I'm presently reading all of Robert B. Parker, watching as his detective fiction novels of the 1970s slowly transitioned into uncomplicated trillers and honestly think that he made a mistake letting that happen. Still, when I stumbled across the second of the books, Naked Heat, I was willing to give it a try and found myself pleasantly surprised. This is actually a perfectly entertaining mystery with a high body count. It starts with one bizarre murder which Nikki Heat is investigating when the call comes in that one of New York's most notorious gossip columnists has been found dead. The list of suspects proves to be incredibly long, leaving Detective Heat, and her associate, hard-boiled journalist Jameson Rook, trying to untangle a very complex story that spirals from major league baseball stars to limousine drivers to pop stars.

It's clear that Straw had a great challenge in telling a very intricate story in a really simple and straightforward way, to the point that he (or some editor) underlines his allusions and metaphors quite crassly. For example, I'd have been perfectly capable of seeing a character as a stand-in for Heath Ledger without the text making it clear. It's always a case of knowing your audience, and the reality is that the audience for this book might not read very many other books. Nevertheless, it feels like he had great fun with it, and both the plot and character interactions are engaging despite the simplicity of the text.

While basic, it is very effective entertainment, and it shows off that Straw really knows what he's doing. Richard Castle, despite his accolades, is more of an ideas man than a master. He can't resist giving his fictional avatar, Rook (get it?), the sexual liaison with Heat that he can't manage (as of 2010's episodes) with Beckett. Even more so than the entertaining story, I'm impressed by the way Straw correctly identified what drives an arrested adolescent like Richard Castle, and created a work that genuinely feels exactly like what I'd expect the character to produce. I can't claim to have any great enthusiasm for it, but it was a truly fun diversion.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Judge Anderson: The Psi-Files Volume 02

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 Judge Anderson: The Psi-Files Volume 02 (Rebellion, 2012).

There was an unfortunate and unavoidable problem with the first of Rebellion's Psi-Files collections. Tracking the solo, spin-off adventures of Judge Cassandra Anderson, a regular supporting player in Judge Dredd's stories, the book presented many stories that had been reprinted countless times already. While a definitive edition was very welcome, overfamiliarity in my case bred enough contempt that just about the only thing left to do when rereading "Four Dark Judges" or "The Possession" was to note just how amazingly often artist Brett Ewins conspired to place his camera behind Cass so that he could draw her perfectly rounded, cute little rear.

The second book features stories that originally appeared from 1990 to 1995, many of which have never been reprinted before. It begins with the terrific "Shamballa." This was the second Anderson: Psi Division serial drawn by Arthur Ranson, for many, the series' definitive artist, and the first of his to appear in color. Not long after this story appeared, the feature left the pages of 2000 AD to become a semi-regular in the companion Judge Dredd Megazine. There, Alan Grant began a long storyline that weaved its way through several adventures. Anderson became disillusioned with the judge force, was ordered to provide Justice Department oversight to a scientific expedition on Mars, met up with her old foe Orlok in a major story painted by Kevin Walker during his "palette of mud" period, and quit the judges to go out on a tour of alien worlds.

"Postcards from the Edge" is the central story - and I use that term loosely - in this arc. A collection of short, episodic adventures, each of these tales are illustrated by different artists, with wildly different approaches. If Ranson had set the tone with his grounded and fidgety, detail-packed artwork, all of these guys just throw the model, and caution, to the wind. Someone called Xuasus delights in murky green and purple paintings of hefty, muscular tough guys and broads, and Charlie Gillespie strides a curious and uncomfortable line between American superhero styles with Kevin O'Neill designs. Tony Luke contributes some utterly bizarre and strangely charming collages, and Steve Sampson, who would spend much of the nineties alternating with Ranson, is engaging but downright strange. He takes photoreferencing to a really weird place - his Anderson is, literally, the musician Madonna - combining meticulous facial detail with giant, solid colors. In his hands, Anderson's hair looks like a floppy, canary yellow jester's hat. Unfortunately, all of these wildly disparate artistic elements overwhelm the stories, to the point that they are much more memorable for how they appear than what they have to say.

I got the sense that Grant had much more that he wanted to do with Anderson in space before he had to bring her home to participate in the big "Die Laughing" crossover with Batman. This is referenced in the text by way of trademark-avoiding foreshadowing, psychic flashes of an eagle (Dredd), a vulture (Judge Death) and a bat (you know). The Sampson-painted "Postcard to Myself" epilogue ends the stories here on a very promising note, with Anderson and Dredd teaming again to re-evaluate her for street duty.

As bonus material, the book wraps up with some short stories that appeared outside the ongoing continuity in various 2000 AD annuals and specials. There's one drawn by Modesty Blaise artist Enrique Romero that I adore, but the real draw here is the fantastic "Mind of Edward Bottlebum," which was drawn by Ian Gibson at the height of his talents. With terrific little character designs, very fun layouts, and an uncharacteristically solid line by an artist well known for dropping his inks, this is more than just a tremendously good one-off. Reprinted in the 1980s Eagle line of American-sized reprints, this was the story that stopped me from thinking that Judge Dredd was merely a very fun comic (two months previously) and made me a fan for life. So I have a soft spot for it. You understand, right? Recommended.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

White Devil # 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 White Devil # 1 (self-published, 2012).

My first thought upon beginning the first issue of White Devil, a four part comic serial by Matt Evans and Andrew Helinski with artwork by Nate Burns, was that the lettering was completely awful and inappropriate. Speaking from personal experience of having released more than a dozen comics where the reasonably good writing and the decent-to-okay artwork was completely wrecked by the lettering, that's more than a bugbear, it's a gaping wound. My second thought was that setting the action in Wetumpka, Alabama and describing it as a place where nothing happens is a bit unfair. Wetumpka, a northern suburb of Montgomery, is the home of Hog Rock BBQ. Everybody should visit Wetumpka.

Fortunately, White Devil is a good enough effort to overcome my initial impression, even if the lettering goes even further off a cliff a few pages on. The creators opted for a scratchy handwriting style for the narrative captions, and this is followed by what looks like a cut-and-paste job from something haphazadly typeset in Word. Frankly, the material here is too good and too promising for such a sloppy approach. Nate Burns' artwork is really impressive. It's black-and-white with tremendous detail and a terrific balance of shade. Across several pages of suburban stillness, he avoids the temptation to shortcut or leave things out, anchoring his characters very firmly in a very real, modern environment of lived-in kitchens, homes, and neighborhoods.

In fact, the work is so grounded that it emphasizes the ugly plot twist extremely well. Our lead character, a suburban mom, has a double life with a gal pal, and excuses herself from household duties for "book club" meetings that turn out to be kinky orgies in the woods with a cult. The artwork is, ever so briefly, quite explicit and visceral and not even remotely sexy when the action leads us here, which doesn't bode well for future events after the Satanic band actually end up conjuring something into our world. Awful things are going to happen in upcoming issues.

Evans and Helinski do a fine job in this first issue pacing the story and setting the scene. At this stage, the comic is more a mood piece than anything either truly horrific or particularly action-oriented. It's something to linger over, enjoying the honest and believable depiction of a life that looks like it is just about to get brutally shattered. I sincerely wish that the creators had paid for the services of a professional letterer, but with that caveat, this still gets a recommendation for older readers.

A PDF of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your comics or detective fiction featured here, send me an email.