Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Complete Ace Trucking Company Volume One

I'm a firm fan of the "satisfying chunk" school of bookshelf collections. I'll take a slight downtick in paper quality if it means more bang for my buck. And that is certainly the case with the recent Ace Trucking Company collection. Rebellion's great big trade, the first of two, covers a whopping sixty episodes of the early '80s comedy series, plus a text story from an old annual.

Almost all of Ace Trucking was drawn by the late Massimo Belardinelli, and I think it's his finest work. Completely full of bizarre aliens, mechanical marvels and weird landscapes, he always found new ways to pace the action by way of strange angles and dramatic positioning of his characters. And they're a downright weird bunch, too. The grapevine says that the editorial team was rarely satisfied with Belardinelli's ability to draw tough guys at the time, so John Wagner and Alan Grant developed a strip with exactly one human being in it, and he was one of the loudmouthed bad guys. The hero was an absurdly skinny alien with a pointy head and enormous feet, and the supporting cast included an eight-foot tall dude with blank eyes and a mane of hair, and a half-naked midget with a skull for a head. Constantly screaming at each other in a parody of the palare used by CB radio nuts, it was one hairbrained get-rich-quick scheme after another for years, until the series was finally felt to have run its course in 1986.

Time's been kind to Ace Trucking. It's clearly a period piece - anything with "Breaker, breaker!" in a word balloon will be - but its comedy is timeless thanks to the likeable characters and escalating disasters of its situations. Belardinelli's work would eventually lose a little luster and he'd fall out of favor with subsequent editors, so it's likely you might not have seen very much of it before now. Also, his work, like Jesus Redondo's and Carlos Ezquerra's, was not favored by the editors at Titan Books, who originally compiled much of the 2000 AD reprints in the 1980s, and in many ways set the stage for what had been considered "classic" or not. Many of these episodes are only now seeing their first reprint, and it's great to see so much of this lovely art under one set of covers. This comes highly recommended, and I hope you check it out.

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday, December 18, 2008.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The ABC Warriors: The Third Element

In other news, Rebellion recently released the fifth in a series of slim ABC Warriors collections, this one reprinting the 15-part "Return to Mars" serials under the title The Third Element. We haven't made it to this point in the Thrillpowered Thursday reread, and so I'll save the really juicy-but-sad behind-the-scenes drama that fueled this unhappy storyline until then, and just focus on the book itself.

To be honest, the previous two ABC Warriors books were a little underwhelming for one reason or another, and this one really gives off a glow of failed promise and expectations. When it works, it works incredibly well: the return of Mike McMahon to these characters after twenty-odd years and heaven-only-knows how many style changes is an absolutely fascinating curiosity, and Henry Flint, currently illustrating a Haunted Tank miniseries for Vertigo, turns in some terrific artwork. But Boo Cook's first pro job is frankly a mess, miles removed from what he'd later prove capable of creating, and Liam Sharp apparently abandoned all of his professional tools in favor of two Sharpies and a Bic ballpoint.

Pat Mills' script is almost enough to hold it together, because he's once again running with lunatic ideas and throwing lots of them at the wall in furious sequence. But everything that does catch your imagination here is abandoned too quickly, and each three-episode storyline would have greatly benefitted from an extra week to breathe. On the other hand, three episodes for each piece is somewhat appropriate for a story about three-legged tripod critters on Mars, I suppose.

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday, Dec. 11 2008)

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Anderson Psi Division: Shamballa

In other news, I decided to take a break from the What I Just Read feature/tag in my LiveJournal, mainly because I've grown tired of finding new things to say about my reading pile. But I did want to continue spotlighting the 2000 AD books, because many occasional readers miss the announcements elsewhere, and they are, as ever, very poorly promoted in the comic news-blog-world.

Back in '05, DC released a collection of Anderson: Psi Division which compiled the three 12-part adventures that originally appeared in 1985-87. Rebellion did not follow up on this book until recently, and they've made the curious decision to make this book an artist-focussed trade. Shamballa is a nicely satisfying chunk of a book, and it contains something like forty episodes, originally published throughout the nineties, all featuring fantastic color artwork by Arthur Ranson. It is not a complete Ranson collection; his first story, the black and white "Triad" serial, is not here, and neither is some of the more recent material from the Megazine, the stuff with the strange demon Half-Life, and Psi-Judge Shakta and Juliet November. But what is here makes for some pretty good reading. Ranson is a wonderful artist and some of these stories are very good. Well, apart from the brow-furrowing, disappointing damp squib of an ending to "Satan," a story which was very promising for many pages before petering out.

However, I can't completely get behind this book because while an incomplete Ranson collection is understandable, an incomplete Anderson collection is completely baffling. Alan Grant navigated the character through a fascinating series of stories, with character growth you certainly do not see with Judge Dredd, and there are, as a natural effect of the character-based continuity storytelling, several maddening references to the things skipped by this reprint. For example, between the incidents of "The Jesus Syndrome" and "Satan," there were three lengthy Anderson stories in the Megazine, all of which are missed in this collection but are nevertheless referenced in the stories that Ranson illustrated. The result is very piecemeal and felt very frustrating to me. Honestly, it's less of a spotlight for Ranson than it is a missed opportunity, regardless of how gorgeous the artwork is.

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday December 04, 2008.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Some Grant Morrison

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Marvel Boy (Marvel, 2001) and All-Star Superman (DC, 2008).

As with Skrull Kill Krew, which I reviewed earlier in the month, Marvel Boy was another mid-90s comic book that Grant Morrison wrote for Marvel Comics. Since I was not interested in Marvel in the mid-90s, regardless of who was writing for them, I passed on both of these books, which, in the apparent parlance of the contemporary internet, means that I was "boycotting" them. It wasn't until my opinion shifted enough to follow Morrison and Frank Quitely to New X Men that I reconsidered. Anyway, as with Skrull Kill Krew, I found an inexpensive used copy of the Marvel Boy collected edition at one of The Great Escape's Nashville locations, although this one cost a whole six bucks, and decided to read it.

Well... it's certainly a lot better than SKK was, but it's still a very difficult book to love. I've really started to think that there are at least two very different kinds of Morrison books - the ones where the rush of brilliant ideas overwhelms the heart and soul of the characters and the work, and the ones where you connect emotionally with the characters as they overcome whatever unbelievable obstacle that Morrison has constructed. Marvel Boy is definitely one of the former; at no point did I feel any connection with the Kree explorer Noh-Varr and his opponents Oubliette and Dr. Midas, but there were certainly occasions where that just didn't matter, so wild were the goings-on.

Briefly, the story's about an explorer from another universe forced to survive on Earth after his party's ship is blasted down and the rest of the crew killed. He awakes in the hands of an insane, unbelievably wealthy industrialist obsessed with alien life - think the Christopher Eccleston "Dalek" episode of Doctor Who with superpowers. What follows is incredibly high-concept craziness, not least of which is the appearance of a "living corporation" that also escaped from the wreckage and quickly begins subsuming our planet's economy.

Overall, it's a very good story, and beautifully illustrated by J.G. Jones, but everybody in the book has a heart as black as coal, and even if Morrison afforded us the chance to sympathize with anyone, you wouldn't want to.

The paperback edition of Marvel Boy is out of print; the link above points to a new hardcover collection. And speaking of collected edition disappointments...

Well, here's an aggravation. There are twelve issues of Morrison and Frank Quitely's stunning take on Superman, which appeared under DC's "All-Star" imprint, hence "All-Star Superman." The first six are available in hardback and paperback, with a hardcover set of the second six due in February. Clearly, these could all fit under one set of covers, but evidently selling ten million or so copies of the 12-issue Watchmen hasn't persuaded DC that such a sales strategy would work here. This is why I don't own Darwyn Cooke's said-to-be-amazing New Frontier, because the only way to get the darn thing in one edition is to pay $75 for a special, oversized version.

If you can be persuaded to buy these two low-cost books, or track down the individual issues, you will certainly be pleased with what you find. This is the only Superman story you need ever read. It's a beautiful tale of jealousy and spite leading to optimism and promise, as Lex Luthor finally succeeds in finding a way to kill his hated rival and the Man of Steel must complete twelve impossible tasks before he goes.

Morrison doesn't try, mercifully, to fit this tale into the existing soap opera continuity of the DC universe. It exists on its own, taking characters here and there from previous comics or cartoons and presenting a perfect, "definitive" version of them. Here, Superman is the much-loved protector of humanity, while also working as the planet's most forward-thinking scientist, caring for strange alien species in his Fortress of Solitude and showing humility while learning friendship with the staff of the Daily Planet.

I can't tell you how wonderful this story is. I've said before that Morrison foreshadows better than anybody else in the business, and he might even outdo himself here, with little clues and hints sprinkled throughout the narrative that all come together in an unbelievable, awesome climax. But it's the little human moments - the ones that Marvel Boy misses with its focus on the big picture - which turn this great story into one of the decade's classics. Clark Kent removing his glasses in front of Luthor, appealing to him to finally do the right thing, Lois reflecting on the senses she no longer possesses as her twenty-four hour superpowers pass, the "imperfect" Bizarro named Zibarro and his pathetic, teenage-emotional poetry, the arrival of law and order in the Phantom Zone...

And then there's issue ten, and it's a bit busy, with Morrison's storytelling at its most non-linear, but there's no question this is the best single issue of Superman ever written. Taken as its own, every home should own it. Taken as part of the overall story, it is downright fantastic, and I think everybody reading this should check it out.

(Related: Zack Smith recently concluded a mammoth, wonderful, ten-part interview with Morrison over at Newsarama. The first part is here, although readers might find it a little difficult navigating to the other pages of the interview. It's worth the effort, though!)

(Originally posted November 11, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

New 2000 AD Books

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Button Man: The Confession of Harry Exton, Nikolai Dante: Sword of the Tsar and Stickleback: England's Glory (all Rebellion, 2008).

Rebellion's been continuing a program of about two reprint collections a month. I buy almost all of them, and these are some of the latest ones. The second Button Man book reprints the second lengthy story of this sporadically-published tale by John Wagner and Arthur Ranson. It first appeared over four months in 1994, and the third wouldn't appear until 2001. In it, the mercenary Harry Exton, whom we thought dead at the end of his first adventure, wakes up in upstate New York, having been rescued and conscripted by a wealthy benefactor to serve as his new hired gun. Genuinely thrilling and full of sharp, unexpected plot twists, I still think the first two Button Man stories will make one hell of a great movie one day.

The seventh Nikolai Dante book features several shorter adventures, 26 episodes in all, published sporadically over an eighteen month run from 2005-06. It wraps up the long run which had Dante, the most wanted man on Earth, hiding out with his mother, the most notorious pirate queen of the Pacific, but there, as always, working both sides of a con. The downside to this book is that almost all of it features John Burns on art chores. Burns is a superb artist, but I simply don't enjoy his work on Dante. The character's co-creator Simon Fraser returns for the final storyline, which sees Dante pulled out of what looks certain to be the worst scrape he's ever been in and dumped in one that's even worse - a new job in the tsar's employ - and sets up a pile of new subplots and problems that are driving the strip in its current run in 2000 AD. It's very good, but Dante is at his best when he's dealing with ugly politics in the Russian court, and there's not quite as much of that in this book as I'd prefer.

I think most American readers have not yet heard of Stickleback, and, good Lord, are you ever missing out. The brainchild of Ian Edginton and D'Israeli, this misshapen, vulgar gentleman with the hunchback, hideously deformed and visible spine and long nose is the Pope of Crime in Victorian London, a place beset by Lovecraftian nightmares, secret societies, ancient evils, Chinese dragons and undead cowboys. He's appeared so far in two series, starting in 2007. These are compiled here along with supplemental material from D'Israeli's sketchbook, and if there was any justice in the world, I could take myself an apple to work in a Stickleback lunchbox. To be fair, I was pleased but not blown away by the first series when it initially ran; the creators made the unusual decision to frame Stickleback and his world through the eyes of his antagonist, Detective Inspector Valentine Bey, and several episodes passed with only the briefest glimpse of the villain. But it gels perfectly in the end, and the second series is just thunderously weird and wonderful, with a new, left-field jawdropper every five pages or so, as Stickleback and his crew match wits with Wild Bill Hickock and his travelling freakshow. Absolutely essential stuff - now when the heck do we get a third series, Tharg?

(Originally posted November 10, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Monday, November 3, 2008

Muhyo and Who

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Muhyo & Roji's Bureau of Supernatural Investigation volume one (Viz, 2007) and Doctor Who: Oblivion (Panini, 2006).

I was mentioning last week about how I bought lots of stuff from the AWA dealers' room. This was one; I spotted the cover and figured, correctly, that my eleven year-old son would enjoy it. Muhyo & Roji's BSI, which concluded a seven-year run in Shonen Jump earlier this year, is simply perfect for his reading bracket, but it really failed to gel with me. Detailing the reasons why the drama failed for me would be like kicking a Goosebumps book for not providing a really good resolution to its teenage wolfman story, or a Harry Potter book for any one of its tedious moments. This isn't intended for grown-ups.

The stories by Yoshiyuki Nishi reach their high points with the revelation of the horrific beast-of-the-week, a critter which will then be instantly and effortlessly dispatched by Muhyo. The art isn't at all appealing, although Nishi has a fine sense of pacing the horrific buildup to each episode's new monster. I won't be continuing with the series, although my son has expressed an interest in picking them up himself. Recommended for middle schoolers.

Continuing to work my way through the complete comic adventures of the Eighth Doctor, I was very pleased to reread this third volume, which starts with one of the best bait-and-switches that Doctor Who has ever pulled, when a new character who seems to be the obvious new companion pulls the twist that you should have seen coming, but then there's a follow-up to that which is still, after all this time, chuckle-inducing in its audaciousness.

"Oblivion" is a really good set of excellently-told stories, ably mixing plot threads from both the earlier comics and the original TV series and presenting a Doctor that we never got to know as well as we should have. And I tell you, if there's a finer Doctor Who moment than when the ghost of Frida Kahlo's father menaces the Doctor's companion, while he's in a graveyard with Diego Rivera on the Day of the Dead fighting aliens, I can't think of it. Highly recommended.

(Originally posted November 03, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Love and Rockets and Ranma

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Love & Rockets: New Stories volume one (Fantagraphics, 2008) and Ranma ½ volume two (Viz, 2003).

Though it pains me to say it, this is a little bit nonessential. Jaime Hernandez's fifty-page tale (broken in half, and with a cliffhanger ending) of bizarre superpowered tomfoolery among his world's supporting cast is pretty fun. Basically, Penny Century finally gets her odd wish to become superhuman, and wacky hijinks involving a pair of all-female superteams follow. It's not at all bad, especially when compared to what passes for this sort of action among contemporary comics. His linework and storytelling are clear and easy to follow, and it probably only fails for not providing what I narrowmindedly was hoping to see. But it's incredibly difficult to connect with characters whom you'll likely never meet again, and who have been drawn in such broad strokes, as these characters tend to be.

Gilbert's stories are even harder to love. No longer working within his extended Palomar narrative, he's apparently turned to illustrating his own nightmares. His fifty pages include some genuinely freaky little tales, including one about some zombifying worms that get into packed lunches out in that nebulous, rural Central American somewhere that he draws so well, and another which reimagines Martin & Lewis as unkillable oddballs punching their way across an alien landscape. They're both great storytellers, and there's nothing here that's not worth reading, but these are creators who have each moved me to tears in the past, and there was no chance of that happening here. Recommended for devotees.

Well, at AWA last month, I picked up the next five volumes of Ranma ½, after confirming that my kids liked the first, each for less than the cost of a current newsstand comic. I'll be spacing these out a little myself, although my daughter is impatiently stamping her foot for a seventh volume, which, sorry for her, I don't intend to buy anytime soon.

Anyway, once upon a long, long ago, I picked up the original first collected Japanese edition of Ranma ½ only to conclude this wasn't for me. Not only have I been proven wrong, but had I picked up the second book, I'd have never made that conclusion, because it's incredibly funny. The high point may come towards the end, when Ranma, wearing his female body, gets a gigantic, drama-stopping smooch from some fancypants ice skating dude and returns wearing his male body roaring with anger like somebody out of Kirby's Asgard. This is great stuff; I'm not certain how many of these damn books are going to warrant individual reviews (Ranma ½ vol. 30 is recommended for anybody who read Ranma ½ 1-29...), but I think the series as a whole deserves looking into. Although, I must point out that the greyscale scanning of the sporadic eight-page color sections is pretty poor, even by Viz's standards, and I'd like to see another edition one day which includes the color as it originally appears.

(Originally posted October 30, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

I Yam What I Yam and I Didn't Think it Too Many

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Slaine: The Horned God (Rebellion, 2008) and Popeye: Well, Blow Me Down (Fantagraphics, 2007).

The Slaine epic "The Horned God" was one of the biggest events in British comic publishing in the late '80s. Originally serialized in three chunks across eighteen months, the series by Pat Mills and Simon Bisley was repackaged into three albums and republished throughout Europe and America, turning Bisley into a star and making fully-painted art all the rage in Britain. So how does the story, in which the wandering warrior-turned-tribal king seeks to unite all the tribes of ancient Ireland to war against invading sea demons and the nightmarish army of the Lord Weird Slough Feg, hold up?

Surprisingly well. Contrary to its popularity, "The Horned God" is certainly not the greatest of Slaine stories, but the novel use of the dwarf Ukko's long-after-the-fact narration allows Mills to retell events from the earlier stories from a new perspective, and what you get in this volume feels less like the fourth book in a longer series than a solid, satisfying read in its own right. Bisley's inventive, perhaps mercurial use of different styles throughout the saga gives it a sense of really huge scale, that what you're reading is an epic greater than something from a twenty year-old comic. I think that there are certainly better Slaine stories, and its impossible to separate "The Horned God" from all the heavily-musculatured painted posing that would bury Bisley's talent in time, never mind impact the look of British comics for at least the next seven years, but it's very solid in its own right, and should be judged very positively on its own merits.

There have been several editions of the story over the years, but Rebellion's new edition knocks them all out of the water. They have been really setting the bar with their 2000 AD books, but this one might be the best one yet. The cover and paper stock are as good as ever, but Pat Mills contributed a remarkable set of annotations to close out this volume, and they had me looking over pages to see things I'd never noticed before. Simply great stuff, and something you really need to order right away.

Hold the phone. You're going to want this as well.

Popeye is another series where I'm well behind the current editions - this is about a year old and the third book is due out soon, but as I'm not gettin' comp copies from anybody, you just have to take 'em as you get 'em. This second edition of Segar's old newspaper strip features Thimble Theatre stories from the early 1930s, and is about equally split with about 90 pages of dailies and 80 pages of Sundays. The dailies tell one amazingly fun continuity where Popeye and Olive go west to manage a ranch deep in criminal badlands, and get drafted to stratergerize a war between two dingbat kingdoms somewhere in the Mediterranean or someplace. The Sundays tell a separate continuity on the homefront where, when he's not being set up for another completely ridiculous prize fight, Popeye's wooing his lady love and eating at the greasiest greasy spoon you've ever seen, and arguing politicks with the owner while the friendless layabout Mr. Wimpy tries to get hamburgers on credit.

It is completely addictive, totally silly, and some of the most emphatically laugh-out-loud material I've sat down to read in ages. I knew this going in; the first volume completely knocked out that considerable stack of skepticism I'd built up over the years, thinking the comic was anything like the mediocre cartoon series. I wish it was not worth wasting space restating in the future, but I fear it'll take a while for the word to get out: don't judge these comics based on all the immunity you'd built up over the years to those godawful King Features cartoons stacked up on your UHF channel afternoons in the late 70s when you were waiting for something good to come on.

The print Popeye was a totally different beast, full of bizarre wordplay, plot twists, spectacular sight gags, and the fantastic lead character, swaggering without compromise as he socks and bludgeons his way through an unbelievable enemies' list. Two-fisted violence never looks quite so hilarious as when Popeye lays somebody out among the swee'peas, and the panels of Wimpy standing on a lunch counter shouting "HEY!" while Popeye and Roughneck scream at each other how Congress never helps either sailors or restauranteurs make me chuckle just thinking about them. Actually, the best thing in the book might be a surprising, yet simple, Sunday strip in which Wimpy pilfers sixty cents from the cash register. Jesus, this is a good book. Does the third volume ship this week?

(Originally posted October 27, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fun Home and She-Hulk

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Fun Home (Mariner/Houghton-Mifflin, 2007) and She-Hulk vol. 5 (Marvel, 2007).

You know how sometimes you just hear that there's a really great book or film or something out there, but you never actually hear what the art in question's about? Sometimes there is good reason for that. Fun Home is a memoir of growing up in rural Pennsylvania, and of course I heard all of the praise and commendations heaped upon it (Book of the Year in Time, you know), but not one word about its subject or content. Well, until some bluenose students at a university in Utah got their panties in a twist about a sex scene, anyway. I think that's the way it should be. Fun Home is a remarkable book that evokes everything from F. Scott Fiztgerald to James Joyce as it tells its incredibly moving story, and Alison Bechdel completely pulls you in with her narrative style, occasionally telling of the same incidents in different ways as they fit each chapter's flow. It's a very effective and very wonderful book, highly recommended.

Well, this is the fifth and final collection of Dan Slott's three-year run writing She-Hulk, and it is the least entertaining of the five, but still very worthwhile and very clever. I was disappointed in it because the earlier editions felt for the most part like they existed, happily, in a nebulous non-continuity, where knowing the ramifications of Marvel's soap-like universe was not essential to understand the subplots that drive the story. Having some idea of what came before has always been part of this iteration of She-Hulk's winking charm, and in fact, a character gets out of a scrape in this volume specifically because he remembers old Bill Mantlo plots from late '70s Marvel black and white magazines.

But while Slott's She-Hulk started as a more reader-friendly, unique book in its own little corner of the shared universe, I suppose its low sales prompted Marvel to start incorporating it into their line-wide changes with constant "everything will change!" events. Since I couldn't care less about the fallout from Civil War or World War Hulk or whatever, this didn't feel like a book that wanted me to read it anymore. Although there is an amusing and well-timed conversation about Marvel's reliance on double-page establishing shots in expensive comics, and how Kirby could have done the same in a single panel, which was an unexpected surprise. When a character complains that he doesn't appreciate spending 27 cents of a $3 comic just to be told that a Helicarrier is big, you can't help but agree. Recommended for Marvel fans.

(Originally posted October 22, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dororo and Girls With Slingshots

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Dororo vol. 3 (Vertical, 2008) and Girls With Slingshots (self-published, 2007).

It's not long since we last saw Hyakkimaru and Dororo, hunting evil spirits and getting on the bad side of samurai and thieves, but their demon-killing mission hasn't changed much. They have a lengthy adventure involving a lunatic obsessed with sharks, and there is a demon in a lake in another... and no sooner did I get over that last little quibble with the off-putting occasional moments of anachronistic comedy and embrace this little work of genius wholeheartedly - around the time that Hyakkimaru finds a breathtakingly novel way to bring down a charging horse - than it ended. Apparently, Osamu Tezuka was contracted to provide a year's worth of episodes, and once finished, he had other projects to jump into. The story goes that he always intended to return to this one, in much the same way he would draw a few months' worth of Phoenix episodes every couple of years, but never found the time. So it reaches an ending, but the overall quest is never concluded. In sum, it might be a bit much to call this a masterpiece, but it's an exceptional series and every comic lover needs all three volumes on their bookshelf. Next up: Black Jack!

I'm such a fickle lover of webcomics. I guess that if I can't get the darn thing to appear as one of my three (three!!) strips in My Yahoo, it eventually falls off my radar. At least four times this year, I've slapped my head with the shock realisation that I haven't looked at Subnormality in ages. Heaven only knows how many webcomics, their bookmarks stored on a long abandoned browser, I have completely forgotten about.

I mention that because it's reasonable to note my fair-weather fandom about things that I want to love, but something about the delivery medium prevents me from committing to. I need to have something to carry around, to read at lunch, or while kicked back on my couch. So since Danielle Corsetto's delightful Girls With Slingshots has been one of those periodic every-once-in-a-while interests, on the strength of its bawdy humor, bizarre situations and great artwork, I was pleased to buy a collected edition of the first 200 strips... just as soon as I remembered, after many months, to stop by the site and see what was new with the grouchy Hazel and her free-spirited best pal Jamie.

Corsetto did a fabulous job in compiling material for the book. Apart from the strips, there are fifty pages of additional features, ranging from examples of the high school antecedent of GWS to ads and commissioned art of the characters. Obviously, webcomickers have a tough time ahead in convincing buyers to shell out for collected editions; after all, the material is freely available on their website, and stacks of bonuses like this might be necessary to make people pony up. But heck, this is exactly the sort of thing I want to see in every collected edition; I can't stand bare-bones efforts like you see from Marvel or Vertigo these days.

Anyway, this is the first in a projected series of GWS editions, and I certainly hope it continues. You can sample the comic at its website and you can read an interview with Corsetto at Comicon and I happily recommend this collection for mature readers.

(Now, can we get Jeph Jacques to start cranking out some Questionable Content books... pretty please?)

(Originally posted October 15, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Slump and Skrulls

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Dr. Slump vol. 16 (Viz, 2008) and Skrull Kill Krew (Marvel, 2006).

Well, now the last time that I spoke of Akira Toriyama's Dr. Slump in these pages, I was incredulous over the shark-jumping awfulness that was Turbo, the closest thing in Japanese comics to Scrappy-Doo that I'd ever seen. Of course, the problem with Scrappy-Doo was not the introduction of a new supporting character; it was the introduction of a new main character, knocking the existing cast into a gang of second bananas. So it was with Turbo, the magic baby that could do anything, except perhaps save a gag strip that had run its course for another year.

So I was in no particular rush to continue with Slump, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that after Turbo's initial three-month domination of the comic, he was quickly sidelined in favor of more fun Arale strips, particularly a three-parter where she and Senbei are turned into flies, along with some bizarre meta-commentary in which Toriyama, along with his assistant Takashi Matsuyama, interact with their characters, answer reader questions and look at life a decade down the road for the cast. This is definitely material past its prime, but I laughed more than once, and the work suggests that maybe if you've made it this far, you may as well see it to the end. (Volume 18, apparently.) Recommended for existing readers.

(Bonus: Rumic World has a 1986 interview with Toriyama and Rumiko Takahashi available on their site. You should check that out.)

Now here's a book I've been intentionally avoiding for better than ten years. In the mid-90s, Grant Morrison was co-writing a lot of subpar material with Mark Millar, and Marvel Comics had introduced a line called "Marvel Edge" where they could publish all their EXTREME!! stories. The mid-90s were a time for lots of EXTREME!! everything, and intentionally misspelled words, and comics that could be safely avoided. But for a buck and a half at one of the Great Escapes in Nashville, I figured the collected edition was worth it. And maybe it was, just.

So the idea here is that some people have contracted an alien virus that allows them to see the shapeshifting aliens who have infiltrated our society, but the virus is terminal and they are quickly dying. Five of these people resolve to spend their last days motorcycling around killing as many aliens as possible. There are nods towards such concepts as subplots and character development, and Steve Yeowell's art is occasionally very nice, if badly colored.

Skrull Kill Krew was intended as an ongoing set in the Marvel Universe, but was culled to a five-part miniseries before its launch. The second and third issues feature the Krew getting in the middle of a fight between Captain America and Baron Strucker, and perhaps the failure of this comic can be explained best by putting it this way: five days after I read this, I remember Cap and Strucker's verbal sparring and the dynamic work Yeowell put into their fight, but I couldn't pick any one of the Krew from a police lineup, nor tell you any of their names but one. Recommended if you've got a spare buck and a half.

(Originally posted October 13, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

More British stuff

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Charley's War: Blue's Story (Titan, 2007) and Judge Dredd: Complete Case Files Vol. 10 (Rebellion, 2008).

In the fourth of Titan's collections of the amazing Charley's War, the action shifts to the home front. On leave in London, Charley Bourne meets a deserter from the French Foreign Legion. As the military police pursue them, the man who calls himself Blue tells Charley the story of the battles at Verdun and Fort Vaux.

The detour from the principal Charley's War narrative into this look at the rest of the war originally ran for six months in the pages of Battle Picture Weekly and was notable for a number of innovative cover pages. Most memorable of these is a great image of the trapped, starving soldiers, their supplies cut, holding Fort Vaux and looking out helplessly while a German taunts them, pouring a canteen of precious water onto the muddy ground.

If you've been reading Charley's War, as of course you all should, then you already know that Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun managed something genuinely amazing and moving in every installment. If you're new to the series, this is actually a fine place to start before you go back and pick up the first three books. The reproduction is a little dark and fuzzy in places, and greyscaling the color covers does not always work as well as we would like, but the presentation is great, with introductory material and lengthy afterword commentary by Mills. Highly recommended.

(Note that the fifth book of Charley's War is actually supposed to be in US shops today. Diamond was extraordinarily late shipping this book to my store of choice, hence the belated review.)

The tenth Case Files edition, featuring around 50 episodes originally published in 1986-87, is among the best in this series. Oddly, Judge Dredd is all the better for the lack of a consistent, regular artist, even the good ones like Ron Smith, who, I understand, had taken a sabbatical to do advertising work around this time. With so many great artists all vying for space, there are more opportunities for individual work to shine.

Brendan McCarthy makes a huge splash with the four-part "Atlantis," for instance. Kevin O'Neill gets three episodes in this book, and they really are something to see. "Varks," a story about aliens that reproduce by turning other lifeforms into creatures like them, would have been a creepy and gruesome story in anybody's hands, but O'Neill really turns it into a freakfest. Other artists with standout work include Steve Dillon, Ian Gibson, whose "Paid With Thanks," about a ghost who does not appreciate innovative accounting, is a riot, John Cooper and Cam Kennedy.

John Wagner and Alan Grant were reaching the end of their celebrated regular partnership around this time, but hindsight doesn't show any cracks or tension in these episodes. They are having a ball coming up with more and more goofball citizens and criminals, and letting Dredd reach the end of his patience with their quirks and foibles. Absolutely essential reading, and highly recommended for everybody from longtime fans to newcomers.

(Originally posted October 08, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Time Lords and Showgirls

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Doctor Who: Agent Provocateur (IDW, 2008) and Nevada (DC/Vertigo, 1999).

In 2007, IDW got the license to make Doctor Who comics for the US market, and decided that six-issue miniseries were the way to go. They got Gary Russell, who's been writing Who novels for ages, and feature stories for Doctor Who Magazine since the mid-eighties, to be their first writer, and parceled his six scripts among four artist teams, only one of whom, Nick Roche, depicts the manic energy of the David Tennant series with anything approaching the job I'd like to see done. The other artists are at best passable.

"Agent Provocateur" is weighed down by a remarkably complicated plot and a giant cast of supporting characters, but where it is weighed down the most is in the dialogue. Certainly, Tennant is the Motormouth Doctor, but there has to be a better solution to accurately write for him than filling the most overpacked word balloons you've ever seen on a comic page, leading me to understand at last what the expression "tl,dr" means. Seriously, they were making editorial cartoons a hundred years ago that were easier to read than this mess. Not recommended.

Steve Gerber's fiction has been so important to me over time that, the first time I ever looked back at my own work and realized that I had unconsciously ripped off somebody's work for Marvel Comics - as opposed to intentionally cribbing from somebody like all kids learning to make comics do - it was this soul-crushingly embarassing eight-page proto-GMS Legion episode I did when I was thirteen. It had something to do with a character having a terrible nightmare for some forgotten but critically important reason, reminding him of some nebulous philosophical lesson. About two months after I wrote it, I realized I'd pulled it straight from one of Gerber's Adventure into Fear episodes about a nebulous philosophical lesson that I didn't understand then, either, but I'd somehow subconsciously come to understand that these were the sort of stories that comic books were supposed to tell. Ashamed of my theft, the notebook paper episode in question was crumpled into a ball immediately afterward.

Nevada has been the first Gerber story that I've reread since he passed away earlier this year. Originally published as a six-issue miniseries by Vertigo in 1998, and preceded by an oddball one-off episode in one of that label's periodic anthologies, it is the story of a Las Vegas showgirl and her pet ostrich getting caught between dueling cosmic forces with an interest in our reality, while the management of the hotel where Nevada performs deals with a rash of grisly murders.

Honestly, it's not a complete success. Episode five is really nothing but nebulous philosophical lessons, but you can certainly look at the many examples of Gerber working through his issues with our existence by putting comic book characters through an emotional wringer and railing at someone who claims to be their creator, and see a vision throughout his work quite unlike anybody else in the medium. While this stuff may be a bit heavy for many readers, Nevada herself is an oddly engaging character, despite her abrasive personality and distance. The police procedural stuff, from investigating the grisly murders to questioning a homeless, drunk former academic - a foreshadowing of the Dr. Fate revival he was working on when he passed - is really interesting stuff. Frankly, I found Nevada's cosmic resolution a small disappointment compared to the human possibilities and potentials that the plot promised, and I use "human" with the caution flag of one antagonist having a lava lamp for a head.

Nevada never returned after this outing; I suppose it didn't sell enough to warrant a follow-up, which is a shame. Despite her short shelf life and cosmic detour, Nevada was a classic Gerber character and we're better for having met her. Recommended for mature readers.

(Originally posted October 07, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Needs More Ezquerra

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Preacher: Ancient History (DC/Vertigo, 1998) and Strontium Dog: The Final Solution (Rebellion, 2008).

As I mentioned in Thrillpowered Thursday a few months back, I really don't enjoy Garth Ennis's Preacher and its uncensored, over-the-top brutality and ugliness, despite its wealth of incredible ideas. However, I decided to give a used copy of this a try to get even more Carlos Ezquerra on my shelves. The book compiles a mini-series and two lengthy special editions which tell stories of some of the main title's supporting cast. The mini-series looks at the violent history of the Saint of Killers, the first special gives us the pathetic origin of the tragic Arseface, and the last story recasts the loathsome Jody and T.C. as protagonists in a parody of an action film.

Steve Pugh is not my favorite artist, but he is perfectly suited to the violent western tale of the Saint and the incident that sent him to Hell. Pugh illustrates the first two episodes and they're fantastic, a studied mix of Western tropes and ideas that suggests he and Ennis would be well-matched on Jonah Hex. In episode three, the Saint awakes on the road to Hell. Ezquerra illustrates this episode, and man, does he ever bring his A-game. With the story now shifted from pulp Western to myth and fantasy, Ezquerra turns in some work that's so amazing that when Pugh returns for the final part and the return to the mortal world, it's an unfortunate and unfair disappointment. Still, it is a great story.

Arseface's tale, illustrated by Richard Case, is an oddly affecting parody of mid-90s suburbia, with outcast teens, uncaring parents and rock and roll. I'm not certain whether the story needed to be told, but I really enjoyed reading it, and any chance to see Richard Case at work is worthwhile. Ezquerra returns for Jody and T.C.'s story, and it's played for laughs. You can't call these two monsters "heroes," but the clever recasting of roles lets the superhumanly powerful jerks take control of a spiralling, ridiculous situation while Ennis mocks the tropes of modern action thrillers. If you enjoyed Ennis and Ezquerra's work on Adventures in the Rifle Brigade, you'll probably like this one.

Overall, I ended up preferring these escapades to the one in the main Preacher storyline. The collection is very reasonably priced, and the Saint of Killers story is so darn good that everybody should see it, regardless of your opinion of Preacher. Recommended for mature readers.

The story goes that in the late 80s, as the fight for creators' rights hit British comics, some of 2000 AD's talent and editorial and publishers all began crossing swords over royalties and loyalties, and it was decided that one of the comic's most popular features, Strontium Dog, would be cancelled and its lead character, the bounty hunter Johnny Alpha, killed. It was a traumatic event for many thousands of readers - see episode 2.6 of Spaced - and one which Alpha's artist and co-creator, Carlos Ezquerra, declined to draw, electing instead to work with Pat Mills on Third World War in the new biweekly Crisis. So Johnny's concluding storylines were taken over by writer Alan Grant and up-and-coming artist Simon Harrison.

There is probably a very good story in the mammoth, 28-part "Final Solution," but Harrison's artwork is so incredibly unappealing that we can't swear to that. To his credit, he's a novel and inventive artist, full of energy and the shock of the new. On the other hand, his anatomy and his faces are so poor, and his storytelling so confusing, that what could have been a great tale of Great Britain finding a terrifying solution to "the mutant problem" becomes a chore to decipher. It's a tragic missed opportunity.

At the time, "The Final Solution" was an even greater chore, as Harrison's workload only allowed him sporadic opportunities to complete the art, and his 23 episodes were printed in four chunks over the course of a year. There followed a thirty-week (!) break before the great Colin MacNeil was drafted to complete the story. So the last part of this epic looks remarkably superior to the first 100-odd pages. Rebellion has assembled the story in a very nice package along with three bonus episodes from old annuals and specials, including the incredibly fun story in which Alpha tries to collect a couple of bounties in Mega-City One under Judge Dredd's nose, but while it is nice to have a complete set of the original series in such nice editions, really, the only thing this book proves is that Strontium Dog without Ezquerra is like a day without sunshine. Recommended for completists.

(Originally posted October 03, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Great Outdoor Fight and Nick Fury

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of The Great Outdoor Fight (Dark Horse, 2008) and Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD (Marvel, 2000).

This is the first collected edition of Chris Onstad's Achewood comic, and it's a simply gorgeous book. It looks exactly like it would have been designed fifty years ago, sort of like an old high school yearbook with an elk or a caribou embossed on the front.

I have to say that the overall appeal of Achewood continues to elude me, though I will, very occasionally, bust a lung laughing, which is more than the zero appeal of many strips. I know it gets lots of critical love, but the characters all talk as though Chris Onstad finally snapped after the umpteenth suburban kid with a crew cut shouted WHAT UP DAWGGG outside his window, and if he has the talent to draw with more style than Scott Adams, he hasn't exercised it yet. Setting aside the deeply unappealing character designs, this really works against The Great Outdoor Fight visually, because I just don't believe in this gigantic world, with thousands of bare-knuckled combatants, that he keeps telling us is there without ever showing us. Perhaps Achewood's fans are taken by Onstad's use of language. He's extraordinarily funny sometimes, and I had to put the book down more than once from laughing.

There's something well-written here despite the artwork and the obnoxious, cross-the-street-to-avoid characters, and I certainly recommend you give the webcomic a spin of a month or so to see what you think. If you enjoy its online presence, then the presentation of this book will really impress you, because Onstad provided some remarkably funny extras in the form of background for the annual fight, and Dark Horse's design team just knocked this one out of the park. It's good stuff, but a step or two away from great.

You know that feeling you got when, after hearing so much about The Man from UNCLE, you finally sat down to watch it and it was dated, slow and just bafflingly old-fashioned? Meet Nick Fury, a comic so firmly 1960s that its appeal outside of that decade is entirely down to Jim Steranko's frankly amazing design skills. This book compiles nineteen episodes which originally appeared in Marvel's anthology Strange Tales from 1966-68. It starts with some episodes by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby which wrap up some earlier storylines, and it feels like labors from an overworked team - eighteen months of previous episodes are not included here - and Steranko becomes the inker in the second story, gradually taking over the book completely.

Fury's snappy tough-guy patter and New Yawk "sock it ta ya" cadence is obnoxious from the outset, and none of the outcomes of any of these stories are ever in doubt. Invariably, a shirtless Fury will overpower any obstacle with the assistance of unbelievable spy gadgets while his comedy sidekicks marvel at his stamina. The artwork is periodically inspired, and every once in a while Steranko pulls a completely unnecessary-but-jawdropping flourish out of his hat and leaves the production team baffled as to how to print the weird thing, but really, these stories were never meant to be read all in one go, and the monotony will wear anybody down. Not really recommended.

(Originally posted September 28, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Rogue Trooper and Sha

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Rogue Trooper: Realpolitik (Rebellion, 2007) and Sha (Heavy Metal, 2008).

Rogue Trooper is a perennial 2000 AD franchise featuring a blue-skinned clone soldier, gone AWOL to track down a traitor and wandering a chemically-wasted future landscape. The character was dusted off for a new series of adventures by Gordon Rennie to tie in to Rebellion's spiffy video game in 2005. Rennie wrote most of the episodes in this book, with a final three-parter tackled by Ian Edginton and Steve Pugh. Overall, they are not bad, and the structured, overarching plot is more engaging than the patchy, episodic nature of the character's 1980s series. There are a couple of stumbles, mainly built around a ponderous "they were soldiers and they died heroes and war is hard" two-parter that reads like Garth Ennis-lite, but there are some great new characters devised for the run, and some great black and white artwork from contributors like PJ Holden and Dylan Teague. Recommended.

I've always been curious about the comics that Pat Mills writes for European publishers. If I understand correctly, many of these appear as annual 48-page serialized editions in France, and are later translated back to English to run in the pages of Heavy Metal.

Sha orginally appeared in France as three books from 1997-99 and tells the story of a police officer in the ugly, dystopian future city of New Eden trying to solve the horrific murders of some corporate overlords. These "men" are actually demonically possessed avatars of constantly-reincarnating beings who, centuries before, had put a witch to the stake, and she called upon a spirit of vengeance called Sha to avenge her death...

I don't want to call it Mills by the numbers, but this certainly follows familiar patterns from Mills' other work in the 1990s. Especially in the first storyline, the way the villains emphasize their fetish for technology and firepower only to be thwarted with minimal effort by Sha's use of bizarre magic is very reminiscent of his early '90s series Finn. The crusading, repugnant Christians remind me of Torquemada and his crew from Nemesis the Warlock, as does the use of constantly-reincarnated lives. And there is much, much more one could see.

It's certainly not bad, and Oliver Ledroit's glorious depiction of such a horrible future will keep any reader's attention. Yet there's much here which, to my overcooked, over-analytical eye, looks a lot like work I've read before and follows a very similar template, with little variety in emphasis or tone. Recommended for Mills devotees.

(Originally posted September 24, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Two Doctors

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Doctor Who: The Glorious Dead (Panini, 2006) and Doctor 13: Architecture and Mortality (DC, 2007).

I've been rereading the complete run of Eighth Doctor adventures (sidelining, for now, the most recently released World Shapers), and grudgingly have to admit that this one is the weakest of the four collections. That's not to say it's without a great deal of charm, as two light-hearted one-offs, each illustrated by Roger Langridge, demonstrate. Langridge also got to tackle a three-part story called "The Autonomy Bug" which concerns a hospital full of incarcerated robots who might be demonstrating sentience, and this brilliant little lump-in-the-throat story is as good as Doctor Who ever gets. Scott Gray handles cliffhangers amazingly well; there's a moment where the same guy that we've been thinking is an alien time traveller wakes up in bed with his friend Grace Holloway having dreamt the whole thing, and that's just flooring. But heavens, the titular epic, all ten agonizing parts of it, evokes the worst of bloated Marvel storytelling, with two opponents locked in a battle of wills for some nebulous, reality-shaping MacGuffin. Even without the specifics, it feels overly familiar and unsurprising. Recommended with reservations.

DC Comics has published thousands of stories featuring thousands of characters over the decades, but every so often they revise their internal continuity into one squished order of things, and some worlds, tales and oddball characters devised by creators no longer actively working don't find favor, and therefore don't find a place in the new scheme of things. Doctor Thirteen was one of these guys, a short-tempered loudmouth ultra-skeptic, sort of what you'd get if James Randi started acting like Sean Hannity. But he was trying to tell a world of Phantom Strangers, Supermen and Sandmen that there were no such things as ghosts, aliens or other-dimensional superbeings, and that simply stopped making sense a long time ago.

Brian Azzarello's weirdly compelling little story receieved enough positive reviews for me to want to read it, and I'm glad I did, even if I knew too much about it going in. Heaven only knows how much more I would have enjoyed it had I been following its original appearance in 2006-07 in a miniseries anthology with the top-billed The Spectre, a comic I still have no interest in reading. Suffice it to say that over the course of the series, with the assistance of several other timelost fictional properties who are also on the losing end of the argument as to whether they should "exist," Dr. Thirteen learns a lot more about his odd place in his even odder universe, and Azzarello doesn't mince words letting the "architects" of the current DC Universe know that whatever hard-and-fast rules they'd like to nail down for their playthings, they'll just be rewritten by somebody else in fifteen years. The art by Cliff Chiang is just gorgeous; I wish they'd get that guy on a book that I'd like to read. Highly recommended.

(Originally posted September 22, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

American Empire and Japanese Boxing

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of A People's History of American Empire (Metropolitan/Holt & Co, 2008) and One Pound Gospel volume two (Viz, 2008).

I always enjoy glancing at the Amazon reviews for a book when I get the URL for the link to help you readers purchase your own copy. I was exceptionally curious what I'd find waiting for me in this case. This is a lengthy, narration-filled companion to historian Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, weaving in the writer's own story from a lieutenant in the Army Air Force in World War Two to rabble-rousing civil rights agitator among the Spellman College faculty to toast of the left-wing intelligensia today, and it's a scathing indictment of the military-industrial complex that's kept the United States in a perpetual war footing for most of the last century.

I think that it's a book that deserves honest critique on its own merits. Is the storyline factually sound? Does it treat the subject fairly? These certainly seem to be true. Where I think it is on shaky ground is in using the medium of comics to its full advantage. At its worst, the book reminds me of the wordier passages in some of Paradox's old Big Books, where you are taken out of the experience of reading a comic and are just reading text with sequential illustrations. If I understand correctly, while Zinn gets top billing, it's David Wagner who provided the actual script and Mike Konopacki the art*. Konopacki's caricatures and clever iconography are very amusing, but the herky-jerky, unnaturally paced script has him working at a huge disadvantage. The imagery is just fine, but the storytelling needs a little work. Few of the topics seem to get the space needed to come alive, while others cry out for much greater detail. I am not certain what the solution could be, but it really feels a draft or two short of where it needed to be.

For my part, I was chilled by what I learned, and it made me want to read more of Zinn (in prose form, mind), so it certainly accomplished its goals despite the rough narrative, and so I certainly recommend it to open-minded readers. But I mentioned the Amazon reviewers, and they didn't disappoint. None of the handful of one-star reviews that the book received came from people who assessed the book honestly, but rather were so incensed in their land-dat-I-love Archie Bunker mentality that Zinn would question our nation's motives that they could only cast aspersions on Zinn himself. I was amused, briefly.

*A commenter noted that while Paul Buhle gets a cover credit, he was actually the editor of the volume and David Wagner the writer. This entry was revised on 9/19 to correct my error.

This is the second revised, resized edition of Rumiko Takahashi's charming little comic about a boxer with an all-powerful punch but no willpower to make a championship career from it. I first gave this a mention about a year back, but I don't know that I gave it enough of a thumbs-up, at least where the incredibly fun and clever first story, "The Lamb Resurrected," is concerned. Taro Matsuzaka, with his fixed, fake grin, is a really delightful enemy, particularly as a little more about him is revealed over the course of the story.

The second tale truly is a drop-off; perhaps, since it had been two years since she'd last written the characters, Takahashi had forgotten that Kosaku shouldn't be quite as stupid as he comes across in this tale. Maybe that face-full-o-ramen reveal makes up for it and maybe it doesn't, but this is certainly the weaker of the first two One Pound Gospel collections. The third is due next month and the last in December.

(Originally posted September 18, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Love and Look-In

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Amor y Cohetes (Fantagraphics, 2008) and The Best of Look-In: The Seventies (Prion, 2007).

Having assembled all of the Hernandez Brothers' Palomar and Locas stories from the first fifty issues of Love & Rockets across six unmissable volumes, Fantagraphics has most recently compiled all (or at least most) of the remaining odds and ends from that comic into a big anthology volume called Amor y Cohetes.

I think it would be simple and repetitive to cough up a list of what all's in this book because content rundowns are available just about everywhere you look. In fact, you can follow the Amazon link in the image for two, and there you'll find an comparison I certainly enjoy. It's like a B-sides and rarities collection, the Hernandez version of Dead Letter Office. Some of these comics are amazingly self-indulgent and showy, some are very clever, and at least one - Mario's "Somewhere in the Tropics" - is completely stunning.

There's also this demented, stream-of-consciousness installment called "Hernandez Satyricon," in which Gilbert uses Jaime's "Locas" characters in a rambling, nutball, nightmarish sci-fi tale. At one point, all of the characters swap genders, allowing Gilbert to ever-so-briefly give us Hopey & Maggie yaoi. Well now. Recommended for mature readers.

I first learned of this collection shortly after I posted my Reprint This! feature on Sapphire & Steel. Look-In was a long-running magazine for teens and preteens in Britain, one that mixed comic strip action with features on the week's TV offerings and the current flash-in-the pan pop fad. I have a few issues, and so I certainly enjoyed Lew Stringer's recent look back at the title.

The thing about the seventies is that you still aren't sure elements of them ever really happened. This compilation book finds room for an article about a new series of interview LPs, with the host of some yoof-teevee program interviewing the likes of Gary Glitter and the Sweet for a monthly record release. And then there's Flintlock. The only reason anybody ever heard of Flintlock, a boy band which followed the Bay City Rollers' playbook and troubled the top 30 exactly once, is that their drummer was one of The Tomorrow People. And yet they're all over this book, with concert reports and a comic adventure. Somehow the editors also found room for a two-page feature on Our Kid, who don't even have the Tomorrow People connection. Roxy Music only gets a half-page.

Anyway, the comics of course reprint a Tomorrow People story, along with multi-part adventures of Black Beauty, The Bionic Woman and Sapphire & Steel. Artists on these stories are John Burns, Mike Noble, John Bolton and Arthur Ranson. There are other comics as well, including generally unfunny humor strips based on Man About the House and Benny Hill and a lightweight ABBA biography which reads as even more woeful in the wake of the Gilbert Hernandez bio of Frida Kahlo in Amor y Cohetes.

And it's full of old ads, for Doctor Who Weetabix (some sort of British breakfast cereal, I think) and Six Million Dollar Man dolls. I think this book is incredibly fun and proved to be a very silly read, particularly when some award ceremony from 1977 gives The Tomorrow People a "best drama" nod, and The New Avengers "best family programme." (Shurely shome mishtake!) That said, I kind of think you need to have been born prior to 1980 to find much charm in this.

And we're still waiting for proper compilations of all the comics, without interruptions by articles on the thrilling new hobby of badge collecting. Make it so, Prion!

(Originally posted September 12, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rampaging Outlaws Nation

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Outlaw Nation (Image, 2007) and Marvel Essentials: The Rampaging Hulk (Marvel, 2008).

There are certainly elements of genius here, and the seeds of a truly great tale. For my part, I can't help but find Jamie Delano's Outlaw Nation, originally published by Vertigo in 2000-2002, a really aggravating read for what it didn't accomplish. The series concerns a family of exceptionally long-lived miscreants called the Johnsons, who reside here and there in the American badlands, and whose exploits have been fictionalized by one of their own, a cousin named Story who went MIA in Viet Nam and finally made his way home many years later to find out what a mess he left behind with his family and his writing. Pursuing them is a half-blood relation who goes by the name Mr. Gloves and is the most sadistic thug you can imagine. Unfortunately, Gloves and his Howard Hughes-esque father have a lot more resources than Story and his ragtag associates, and Johnson blood can keep the old man going for decades more...

It's not fair to Outlaw Nation to burden a writeup with complaints, but while I did enjoy it, and find it incredibly fascinating, I also found it very frustrating. First up, Delano made the very odd choice to keep everybody's dialogue very naturalistic, and none of the characters discuss their background or their place in this wonderful tapestry, until a very natural time to do so emerges. In some cases, this doesn't come along for quite a few chapters. One thing that comic books can, and need, to do is contrive an appropriate way to forward information to the readers as quickly as possible. Delano's approach is more realistic, but leaves much of the first few issues very confusing the first time through. Put another way, had I been reading this as a monthly, I'd have dropped it after the second issue.

There's so much threatening, without follow-through, in this book. I was actually reminded of The X Files around its third season, when every other week, Mulder would pull a gun on Krycek or the Cigarette Smoking Man and everybody would yell at each other, but all that Quantico training would vanish under some gobbledygook about Mulder's sister and nobody would get a bullet between their eyes like you were hoping. This is like that.

Anyway, after 15 issues, just when a new plot complication was introduced along with some new characters, Delano was told he was cancelled and had four months to wrap everything up. So the conclusion is rushed, and I can't imagine he was especially pleased with it, but I was quite satisfied. The full run was collected in black and white by Image last year, and very nicely priced. This was originally a Vertigo book, so it's recommended for mature readers. Not emphatically, you understand, but it's certainly worth consideration.

Why, why, why did I buy this? What was I thinking?

Well, okay, I know. See, around 1976, Marvel decided to challenge Warren, publishers of black and white horror mags like Creepy, Vampirella and Eerie, with its own line of black and white magazines, which included this title. I never read one, and now the whole fifteen-issue run is available in one book. And it stinks, but it was 30%-off week at Borders.

So the book gives you nine stories which recount previously untold Hulk tales set between The Hulk # 6 and The Avengers # 1, for all seventeen people in America who demanded those tales be told. Then, recognizing the success of the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV series on CBS, the magazine was rejigged to get rid of almost all the superhero elements, with only token weird science, lots of Banner being a sympathetic hero, and supporting characters including abused kids and elderly cancer patients. So there, half the book is retarded retconning of old Lee/Kirby material, stories so bad that Bill Mantlo later retconned the retcon into merely being a series of feature films on an alien planet, and the other half is the worst kind of mawkish million-dollar-movie melodrama. Don't buy this book during 30%-off week at Borders. Don't buy this book at 90%-off week at Borders, for that matter.

(Originally posted September 10, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Batman and Bad Company

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Showcase Presents Batman volume three (DC, 2008) and Bad Company: Kano (Rebellion, 2007).

More of the same. Depending on your opinion of mid-to-late 1960s Batman, agonizingly more of the same. The book features several television-friendly villains, even ones they never used in the 60s TV series such as the Cluemaster and the Getaway Genius, but sometimes in grandiose schemes that could never have been realized on that show's budget. It features the old-styled, retarded Catwoman who was obsessed with stealing anything with "cat" in the name, be it catamarans or catawba grapes. There's some nice artwork from the likes of Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane, but you'll probably like this book a lot more if you're one of us who love the show.

Oh, I wish I could recommend this a little more strongly. The first series of Bad Company, back in 1986-87, was really amazing. Peter Milligan's been a really uneven writer, ranging from utterly compelling (as seen in that first series and, say, Enigma), and then there's well, the last two years of Shade the Changing Man and most of this. The book reprints two storylines. The first, in which the battle-scarred Kano attempts to retire to a farming community beset by ghosts and by creatures in the forest, has elements of genius, but it's completely undermined by Brett Ewins' artwork, which is even more stiff than usual and colored in that garish watercolor he seemed to be using throughout the early 1990s. The second features far better, more vibrant black and white work that recalls the earlier adventures, but the story is Milligan on autopilot. There's very little here which will convince new readers just how amazing that first series was.

(Originally posted September 02, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Too Cool to Be Forgotten and Shirley

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Too Cool to Be Forgotten (Top Shelf, 2008) and Shirley (DC/CMX, 2008).

I came late to Alex Robinson, getting two of his better-known books in the last year or so while he was in the studio working on this strange little time travel story, where a fellow undergoes hypnosis in a bid to quit smoking and finds himself stuck in the past, given a new chance to never start in the first place... but is that the only "fix" to his own history that he can make?

I liked it very much, and I'm being hopelessly unfair to Robinson by finding quibbles, but what made Box Office Poison and Tricked so engaging was the effortless juggling of POVs among multiple protagonists. There isn't anything wrong with the comparatively slim Too Cool to Be Forgotten, and its remarkable evocation of 1980s high school is great fun, and we should certainly applaud creators who can avoid expectations so well (which brings me to the next subject, below), but, selfishly, I will impatiently wait for a new 600-page Robinson tome with a huge cast as soon as is feasible. Recommended.

What interests me most about Kaoru Mori is her exquisite artwork, especially in period architecture and costume, immersing readers in her Victorian/Edwardian romances through outdoor crowd scenes and huge parties. But the seven stories in this collection predate her better-known Emma by some time, during which Mori was (slowly) learning to draw more than just faces and bodies. Five of the stories are wish-fulfillment tales of a practically perfect in every way thirteen year-old who finds work as a maid, and the others are not-disagreeable short stories with maid protagonists. I don't know what her interest or fetish is, either.

Emma, itself, was a very frustrating read which I could only recommend on the strength of the gorgeous art, which is what led me to try this. I'd recommend this about as strongly as I would Gregory Maguire's umpteenth revisionist fairy tale. If I wanted a one trick pony, I'd buy one, and the next thing I sample from Mori better not have any more goddamn maids in it.

(Originally posted August 28, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Defenders and Dororo

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews of Essential Defenders volume four (Marvel, 2008) and Dororo volume two (Vertical, 2008).

This is very iffy stuff. This is late-seventies Defenders, scripted almost entirely by Ed Hannigan, who's got some pretty good ideas, but his artists are really conspiring against him. Most of the art here is provided by the period's agonizing superhero bores Herb Trimpe and Don Perlin, both of whom have studied the right playbooks, but don't know what to do with them. You can see, for instance, that Trimpe knows that a good Kirby pose involves someone pointing in shock just beyond the camera, but he doesn't know how to make the frame energetic or involving in any way. There's a nice sequence of stories where the Sub-Mariner and Black Panther get aggravated with each other, leading to war between Atlantis and Wakanda, and there's a huge storyline about a war in another dimension against a foe called "The Unnameable," so called because you instantly fall under its control upon learning its name. Another big skirmish in Asgard sees some pretender to Hela's throne bring up a big, army-crushing, locomotive mountain which just rumbles across the battlefield.

But with art as uninspiring and dull as this, and with enough boring Earth-based subplots to counter the wild ideas, this really did become a slog. The superhero Nighthawk literally spends almost three years fighting a tax evasion complaint, and the embarassingly dumb villain the Mandrill, with his army of gun-toting chicks in bathing suits, shows up every three issues or so. It was kind of nice to fill in the holes of the old collection of these I had in middle school, but this is about as far from "essential" as the law will allow. Recommended only for 70s Marvel fans.

Now, this on the other hand: you know, I've mentioned Dororo before (follow the Tezuka tag below), and I had a long day at work and can't do this justice right now. These are damn good comics, full of wild medieval swordsplay, bizarre technology and freaktastic demons, done by one of the medium's real geniuses about forty years ago, and it kicks the crap out of practically anything else you can buy today. It's admittedly slight, with no greater goal than to entertain, but wow, it does that in spades. There's only one more volume of this to come, and I'm going to miss it.

(Originally posted August 26, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Battler Britton and Cowa!

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews of Battler Britton (DC, 2007) and Cowa! (Viz, 2008).

I enjoyed the daylights out of this comic. The character originally appeared in some of the UK's older, digest-styled anthologies such as Air Ace Picture Library and this was his first outing in better than thirty years. Garth Ennis clearly has a lot of reverence for the original series and plays things straight, giving readers a solid wartime adventure in north Africa, with derring-do and human tragedy. This didn't sell as well as DC/Wildstorm were hoping, despite Ennis's other successes, putting the brakes on other period revivals. That's a real shame, because this is a truly fine comic which deserved a wider audience. Recommended for anyone who likes war comics.

Well, this is just about the cutest damn thing ever. I've mentioned before that since completing Dragon Ball, Akira Toriyama has not committed to any long-form comics, merely short serials which run for only 13-14 weeks. Cowa! is one of these, a very fun all-ages story featuring a mischievous, well-meaning vampire kid in a monster village. To say more about Paifu, as the back cover does, gives too much away. Paifu and his best friend, a ghost named Jose, have to enlist the aid of a retired human sumo wrestler when all the town's monster adults come down with a deadly disease, and the only cure is 750 miles away.

Toriyama inks with a heavier line than he used to in this story, which was first published in Japan in 1997, but his storytelling prowess is every bit as good as in his Dr. Slump heyday. He still lays out the action better than anybody, and the old smacked-into-the-stratosphere gag is every bit as funny here as it ever was. Viz's new collection of this story, in its first American edition, actually includes the first episode in its original color, which is the first time I've seen that from Viz. Highly recommended for people who like fun, and especially those who have kids. Every elementary school library in the country should stock this book.

(Originally posted August 22, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Friday, August 15, 2008

Showcase Presents Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2 and Sandman Mystery Theatre vol. 6

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews of Showcase Presents Legion of Super-Heroes volume two (DC, 2008) and Sandman Mystery Theatre volume six (DC, 2008).

This is the second Showcase collection of 1960s LSH stories and it's pretty fun stuff, although unbelievably dated. It's more than just the design, although that's quite problematic itself. The Legion's "clubhouse" - a mysteriously bigger-on-the-inside rocketship which is routinely drawn as not much larger than a port-a-potty - is probably the worst offender, but the whole book is full of these dorky 1950s visions of the world to come, where everything that flies has huge tail fins and interior cabins with a lot more open space than a rocketship would need. Actually, the fact that I've had to use "rocketship" twice in one paragraph probably tells you everything you need to know about how emphatically 1950s all this stuff looks and feels.

I'm a lot harsher on this than I should be; it's very much a comic for children and it's done with so much more enthusiasm and verve than many other DC books of its time. There's still a strong degree of innocence and ignorance in its presentation and pacing - rocketing to another solar system is done with as much complication and complexity as bicycling down to the corner store on a lazy spring afternoon - but you can tell the writers wanted to make something of this sprawling cast of characters. Around the same time these were being printed, DC was also employing a fellow named Robert Kanigher, who just proudly regurgitated the same repetitive plots and tropes in the pages of his comics. By contrast, LSH seems to have accidentally repeated the same storyline about the new member turning out to be a traitor, and you can almost feel the embarassment on the page, a sense that the characters know that their naive trust is not just misplaced, but exploited by their enemies.

Much of the book continues in this vein, and is of principal interest to people who've been LSH fans for quite some time. But towards the end, in 1966, things suddenly get very interesting when Jim Shooter arrives as the new writer. Shooter was a high schooler at the time, and I recall reading somewhere that he decided to pitch for LSH because he believed that was the book most in need of help at the time. I won't say that he makes a quantum leap in storytelling when he arrives, since he was, like, fifteen years old then, and the retention of these deathly-dull Dick and Jane illustrations prevents Shooter's vision from becoming "the shock of the new," but there's a marked and very interesting difference from what came before.

Across town, DC suddenly had a strong competitor in Marvel Comics, where Lee, Kirby and Ditko were crafting the best comics of the 1960s. That's where Shooter's mind was; that's where he'd later thrive. Shooter is much less wordy than his predecessors Edmund Hamilton and Jerry Siegel, using the comic space in a totally different way than they would. There are panels with only a single word balloon, with only a single sentence. That may seem unimportant to us, but after 450 headache-inducing word-filled pages, leaving as much room for the art as Shooter did really was novel. Unfortunately, the art is by the likes of Jerry Forte, Curt Swan and George Papp and not someone vibrant like Kirby, Colan or Heck, but at least Shooter is looking forward. (Actually, I see that Shooter actually did the layouts for these issues himself, and the final pages redone and inked by Swan, Papp and Sheldon Moldoff. Now that is interesting.)

The storytelling is massively improved. Shooter's emphasis is on the heroes and their interactions, rather than long-winded schemes of aliens who look like accountants and their thought-bubble recollections of recent villainy. Most surprisingly for the time, Shooter's three issues - a two-parter and a one-shot - feature bad guys who actually get away to fight another time. Baddies in these old DC Comics were always either arrested by the space police and taken to space jail, or they met an unfortunate end as a result of their misguided actions. I'm not calling this stuff essential or anything, but it's pretty fascinating from a historical standpoint, and recommended to people with an interest in books from the period. The next volume, set for the spring, will have a lot more Shooter and should be a real winner.

I did a writeup on Sandman Mystery Theatre a couple of years back, when four collections were available. Go check that out for more information on the series. The sixth book was released this year, and I'm a little ambivalent about it, to be honest. It features two stories, and the first is a real firecracker. It's illustrated by Guy Davis and in it, our hero matches wits with another costumed adventurer from the late '30s, a fellow who takes a drug that gives him remarkable strength and endurance for one hour. Davis's work is just amazing. It sure isn't pretty - he captures people at their most mundane and ugly, setting himself at a blissful polar opposite from most mainstream American comic artists, who just want to draw supermodels - but his pacing, his likenesses, his architecture, his use of shadow and foregrounding and period detail are just perfect for this kind of story. It makes you long for a feature film adaptation.

Unfortunately, it's paired with a second four-parter which has not aged nearly as well. "The Python" features early work from Warren Pleece, who has since done far, far better work, including Second City Blues for 2000 AD and the recent Life Sucks with Jessica Abel. His work here is very amateurish and while Davis draws good pictures of ugly people, everybody in Pleece's pages is just plain ugly. The story's not as compelling as I remembered either, although the stunning stumble in Wes and Dian's new relationship is the real draw, and not the mystery, which wouldn't fool anybody. But what disappoints most, especially in light of DC's breathtaking restoration of Starman, mentioned in the last What I Just Read, is how dull and no-frills this book is. This is not surprising, particularly in light of the last decade-plus of half-assed Vertigo collections, but when you know the company can do a bang-up job with nice paper, introductions, supplements, commentary and background, it's a little disheartening to see the closest thing to a bonus is the original periodical cover used as a chapter break. And heck, in Starman they just gave the original artwork without all the text and ad copy on the front. Here, they just laid the original comic on a flatbed scanner. Get it together, Vertigo!

(Originally posted August 15, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"New editions of books I'd already bought" special

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews of The Starman Omnibus volume one (DC, 2008) and One Pound Gospel volume one (Viz, 2008).

I don't have a great deal of time today, and these are both collections of material that I have mentioned before in a little more detail in this blog before, so I'll direct readers to those entries for more details about the actual stories.

Starman is a work of simple genius, easily one of my two or three favorite American comics of the 1990s, a story as much about family and place as it is heroics. I wrote more about Starman here. Its run had previously been compiled into ten trade paperbacks which, under various editorial regimes, were assembled in different fashions, with stories skipped or moved to later books. Now the whole series is being reassembled into six big hardcovers which will collect everything, on nice paper, with lots of supplemental information.

Volume one was released this summer. For a dollar less than 17 new comics will cost you, this book contains the first 17 issues of Starman. Since, honestly, nobody in the US is publishing anything right now that's as good as Starman, your money is better spent here. Unmissable.

One Pound Gospel is a sweet, breezy comedy about a young boxer with willpower problems and the young nun who believes in him. I wrote more about One Pound Gospel here. Its truncated run had previously appeared in Viz's old format of Western-format Japanese comics, overpriced and with the art flipped to follow English language left-to-right reading. Now the whole series is being reassembled into four digest-sized books which will collect everything, including the stories not released in the US previously.

Volume one was released this summer. For five dollars less than the old version would cost you, this book contains the same stories in their original Japanese size and configuration. Since Viz has finished up its American editions of Ranma, Rumiko Takahashi's fans can try this series out. Recommended.

(Originally posted August 07, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)