Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hideous Beasts Edition with Judge Death and Hot 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 Judge Death: Boyhood of a Superfiend (Rebellion, 2008) and Harvey Comics Classics: Hot Stuff (Dark Horse, 2008).

Each of these books should be praised for one thing: they look fantastic and are reproduced well. They are each fine additions to any bookshelf. The Judge Death book has the nice matte cover and glossy paper that fans of the Rebellion line have come to expect, while the Hot Stuff book is astonishingly good value for money. Taking a leaf from the Essentials/Showcase playbook, this is about 400 pages of comics, but - and here's an important distinction from the big Marvel/DC books - with a mix of color and monochrome, and reproduced on wonderful paper with introductions and background material.

"Boyhood of a Superfiend" was one of the inaugural series in the Judge Dredd Megazine and it is set after the events of the "Necropolis" epic. In it, Death, licking his wounds, hides out as a lodger with a nearly-blind pensioner and tells his life's story to a journalist. Taken on its own, there isn't anything wrong with the story at all - it's full of grisly, black humor and the artwork by Pete Doherty is very good indeed - but it all seems completely superfluous. Indeed, giving Death all the page time he was getting in the early 90s was detrimental to the character and robbed him of his impact. To be honest, as amusing as this story is, I'm not sure it is a story that ever needed to be told. There's a bonus strip by Si Spencer and John McRea included, but the publisher really missed a trick by not adding "Tea With Mrs. Gunderson," an eight-page story by John Wagner and Dean Ormston that served as an epilogue to this adventure. Recommended for completists.

I normally defer to our friends at Mr. Kitty in all things Harvey, and last year they gave the Hipster Daughter the big bookshelf edition of Richie Rich that Dark Horse compiled. While I haven't read it all yet, I was impressed enough with the package to give Hot Stuff a try. Honestly, I'd never read any Hot Stuff before. I know of the character, but I never, ever saw these comics as a kid.

And you know... I don't think I was missing much. It's always difficult to tell whether you're being too critical in judging material for kids when you're not approaching it from that mindset - clearly your old pal the Hipster Dad is kinder to certain Sid & Marty Krofft shows than they objectively deserve, because he loved them as a child - but this is a downright repetitive, boring book. One main problem is that, unlike Richie Rich or Little Dot and the others, Hot Stuff doesn't have a consistent universe and regular characters to bounce off. He's interacting with medieval villagers in one episode and 1950s stage magicians in the next, then Neptune, then monkeys on some island. And he melts all the snow on top of a mountain forty times and his trident gets snatched thirty times and a volcano erupts twenty times... it's like a lifeless early 60s Hanna-Barbera TV cartoon. The only recurring-ish character in the first chunk is Stumbo the Giant, and he's the most boring character I've ever seen, although there are apparently some "Devil Kids" to be encountered in pages to come.

That said, the Hipster Daughter thinks it's a riot, and I think her opinion trumps mine. About the best I can say is that it's interesting to consider how Hot Stuff is the spiritual ancestor of both Calvin and Bart Simpson, but she'll tell you it's funny and that's all that matters. So if you've got elementary school-age kids, it comes with her seal of approval. Recommended for under-tens; I'll wait for the forthcoming Harvey Girls collection.

(Originally posted July 23, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Green Lantern and Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service

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 Green Lantern vol. 3 (DC, 2008) and Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service vol. 6 (Dark Horse, 2008).

Amusingly, this bunch of mid-60s Green Lantern adventures sees the book picking up an influence from the Batman TV series. There's a greater emphasis on real-world fisticuffs and recurring villains and a new job for Hal Jordan driving around the Pacific Northwest as an insurance investigator, not to mention two episodes that reference a popular TV series that everybody watches. One is a Green Lantern action series and one is about a criminal called the Dazzler who escapes each week to fight again another day. However, reflecting the naive innocence of the New Yorkers producing these comics, plot points in each hinge on the incredibly unlikely notion that these programs are transmitted live, which was pretty unlikely in 1966! The biggest selling point is that you get some of the earliest examples of Gil Kane inking himself, and damn, those pages look good. Recommended for readers who enjoy the Showcase Batman books.

Admittedly, it's part of the horror genre's rules that the plot is more important than the hapless people to whom the plot actually happens, but I've been chugging along with this series, enjoying the heck out of how morbid and surprising it can get, but I could not tell you the name of any one of the protagonists. On character kind of dominates the storylines, but there's a sense of anonymity and dullness about the five protagonists that occasionally grates. I can't give it an unqualified thumbs-up on that note alone, but this volume is actually more entertaining than the others, because after four of the usual 30-page episodes (it apparently appears first in a monthly, rather than weekly, anthology), the setting shifts back to the early 1900s for a completely bizarre and grisly adventure starring an amateur detective called Kunio Matsuoka. Hang the tales from the present day, I wanna see more of this guy!

(Originally posted July 20, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Dare and Doonesbury

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 Dan Dare: Reign of the Robots (Titan, 2008) and Doonesbury: The War Years (Gramercy, 2006).

The previous Dan Dare serial, also available from Titan (and reviewed by me in brief here) had ended with a spectacular twist: Dan and company, having saved the day in a remote galaxy, would be returning to Earth a decade after they left. Then they return to find that the old home was conquered by the Mekon's robot army nine years ago, the entire population enslaved in his immortal enemy's concentration camps, providing fodder for bizarre scientific experiments. Since this is a 1950s kids' serial, little space is devoted to the horrific premise, but the only time this really felt to me like something truly dated and eye-rolling comes in the follow-up serial, also collected here, called "The Ship That Lived." Having liberated Venus and Earth in a rollercoaster thrill ride of unexpected, weird plot developments and derring-do, Dan's first priority is not to oversee the great redevelopment and economic recovery that must come, but to... well, extract his old spaceship from a bog. It takes weeks. It's mostly wonderful, but I can't call this a real priority.

For much of the last decade, Doonesbury has been compiled in 150-page editions which aren't complete. You can always tell, because they lay them out with a week of dailies over two pages, but slowly the storyline starts to creep because a strip gets left out. And there are no dates for you to confirm when they originally appeared either, making it a real chore to go look up the missing ones on the web site. Doonesbury's remarkably poor track record in collected form is one of my biggest bugbears about the comic hobby, which is why I feel quite strongly that it should be reprinted properly, and soon.

But, lacking any progress on that front, we make do with the books we've got. The War Years is an omnibus reprint of the earlier collections Peace Out, Dawg! (which I bought) and Got War? (which I should've), in hardcover for about the original price of either of the originals. So this covers most of the material from 2001-2003, tracking the deterioration of G.W. Bush from beleagured all-hat-no-cattleman into wannabe imperial. Duke gets some great storylines playing fast and loose with double-crossing Enron execs (was Jim Andrews "born" for that role or what?) and their wives, and setting himself up for a reconstruction role in Iraq that leads to him working the black market. Zonker wages war against David Geffen and Boopsie coaches B.D.'s football team, and it's genuinely great stuff. Which I'd swap in a heartbeat for a complete edition with some annotations. Sorry, I know I harp.

(Originally posted July 16, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

1940s Batman and 1990s Takahashi

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 Batman: The Dailies 1943-1946 (Sterling, 2007) and Rumic Theatre (Viz, 1996).

Boy, a little of this goes a long way. In the early 1990s, the now-defunct publisher Kitchen Sink teamed up with DC to reprint the entirety of the wartime Batman newspaper strip. The three books, poorly designed to my eye, with only two strips per page, sold badly and more than fifteen years later, Sterling cobbled up the innards, not even modifying the page numbers, and put them all in one mammoth, heavy hardback that'd bludgeon a runaway hoodlum, apparently with an eye on the remainders table at larger chain bookstores. If you can stand the discomfort of reading the 600-page thing, there's some good stuff. Batman in the 1940s had a lot more in common with Dick Tracy than the modern super-ninja, and our hero routinely comes out on the wrong side of a fistfight with thugs. He gets knocked cold by a thrown can of tomatoes at one point! Only one of these sixteen serials features a name supervillain - the Joker - the rest are pretty colorless villains with pretty colorful criminal schemes. The strips are supplanted with an amazingly exhaustive series of essays and interviews, meticulously researched and not a little dry, but more like the sort of supplements I'd prefer to see more publishers attempt. I reviewed Sterling's companion volume of Sunday strips in the spring (See here.) and can't help but feel that's the better volume, but I'm perhaps biased against this awkward, heavy book which, redesigned to display three or four strips a page would have been a lot thinner and manageable. Recommended with reservations; look for low-cost options first.

Now Rumiko Takahashi is of course well known for her long-running serial stories, but it looks like every few months she creates a one-off thirty-odd page story which appears in one of those weekly Japanese anthologies in addition to, or in lieu of, an episode of Ranma ½ or InuYasha. These are typically light romances, occasionally with some supernatural or magical element. I'm not certain how these were originally compiled in Japan, but this is a mid-90s Viz effort which packages six of these stories in that awful old neither-fish-nor-fowl $16 format that Viz used to use before giving in and going with low-priced digests like they do today. It's long out of print, but you shouldn't have much trouble tracking down a copy - Amazon has links to sellers letting it go quite cheap - and you certainly should, because each of these are charming and clever and, if we're honest, a whole lot better than InuYasha.

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

Friday, July 11, 2008

Ditko, Flint and Kirby

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 Doctor Strange Vol. 1 (Marvel, 2004), Judge Dredd: The Henry Flint Collection (Rebellion, 2008) and Kirby: King of Comics (Abrams, 2008).

I picked this up at the Great Escape in Louisville in the spring for nine bucks, and I have to say, if there's a more mistitled book in the whole "essential" library, I haven't seen it yet. Doctor Strange originally appeared as eight-ten page episodes in Marvel's anthology book Strange Tales, and after a hesitant start over the first three or four shaky installments, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created something genuinely weird and compelling. The visuals are just amazing, and there's a sense of a universe so wild and unrestrained that you're willing to overlook the conventions of 1960s comics, like the talky, cod-Shakespearian dialogue. Nobody says "'tis" as much as Dr. Strange. But there's a great cast, highwire ideas and clever plotting, culminating in a lengthy serial where Strange's two chief villains team up to destroy him. It's genuinely great stuff.

And then, after about 300 pages, Ditko leaves. And while Bill Everett, Roy Thomas and others try their best, what follows is not even remotely essential. I gave up on it, frankly. I'd be much happier with a simple "Complete Ditko" edition of this comic on better paper, because that's the Essential Dr. Strange, not all this extraneous mess. By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, make it so, Marvel!

This is the third of Rebellion's artist-centered Judge Dredd collections. (The others spotlight Cam Kennedy and Carlos Ezquerra.) This one presents about a dozen episodes of varying length by one of Dredd's best modern artists, and I can't find a nit to pick with it. It includes the hilarious "Turkey Shoot" and the fantastic "Flood's Thirteen," which starts as a parody of those Clooney-Pitt heist films before falling apart in a spectacular disaster of teleporters, stolen identities and lobotomised terrorists. Highly recommended!

The short version: Boy, this is good, but I'm unsatisfied, knowing that there is much more out there.

Mark Evanier's Kirby: King of Comics is a gorgeous coffee-table biography of one of the medium's great thinkers and talents. Don't let the appalling cover dissuade you; the interior is as flawlessly designed as you could hope for, and features hundreds of wonderful illustrations of Kirby's work on creations ranging from Captain America to the bulk of 1960s Marvel - pretty much everybody you've heard of other than the handful that Ditko designed. The writing is incisive and paints a real, complete portrait of Kirby, but many of the details that appeal to me as a reader and completist are, due to space limitations, glossed over.

I would love to learn much more than this book provides, and happily, Evanier is in the early stages of a more comprehensive bio. This is a more than adequate placeholder until then, and will surely satisfy most readers, or new fans who'd like to have their eyes pop out at the sight of some of these original sketches, cosmic layouts behind the bizarre visage of Galactus, collages, caricatures and ephemera. Recommended on the understanding that something more essential will one day supplant it.

(Originally published July 10, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Buffy and Popeye

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. Today: reviews of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus Volume One (Dark Horse, 2007) and Popeye Volume One (Fantagraphics, 2006).

I felt like giving this a try, since the Hipster Kids and I have been watching the first season of this series. Dark Horse has been publishing Buffy tie-in and spin-off comics from a number of creative teams for around a decade. This compiles more than 300 pages of comics, not in publication order, but in chronological order, setting the stage for the characters before the first episode of the show. It's pretty uneven. The bulk of the book is scripted by Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza, with excellent art by Cliff Richards and Will Conrad, and it's not at all bad, but you have to wade through a mess to get there. A story about Spike and Druscilla set in 1933 doesn't truly evoke either character, but "The Origin," ostensibly a more faithful adaptation of Joss Whedon's original film screenplay than the movie that emerged from it, is a garbled, seventy-page disaster of sloppy, amateurish storytelling, illustrated by someone who was unclear just what Sarah Michelle Gellar looks like. I might pick up additional volumes of this Omnibus series - it's a great package, also done for several other licensed Dark Horse properties like Aliens and Indiana Jones - but the discount will have to be pretty steep. Not really recommended, but Whedon's more devoted fans might overlook the clumsy pacing and narrative more easily than me.

This is about one thousand times better than I thought it was. We're all familiar with the Popeye cartoons of the 1930s, but those seem to have next to nothing to do with the bizarre, engaging, absolutely wonderful newspaper strip that spawned them. Thimble Theatre had been running for about a decade before some of its heroes met this unedermekated, unstoppable brute of a sailor, who rewarded them by taking over their strip. The strip comprises lengthy adventures full of bizarre science and evil spiricks, incredible wit and gorgeous linework by the great E.C. Segar. I laughed myself stupid several times. There's a bit early on where Castor Oyl and Ham Salad get rid of Olive by sending her to purchase "a dime's worth of longitude," and I must say that the silent punch-line panel for that strip is just about the funniest thing I've ever seen drawn. Then Segar runs with that gag for three priceless days. What a great strip.

Best of all though is Popeye himself, a force of nature who just routinely beats the hell out of anybody for any slight. I can't even begin to describe what a revelation this is. They sanitised the heck out of this character when he started appearing in motion picktyers. I wish he could have gone ten rounds with Everett True back in the day; that would have been something.

My only complaint is a small one: in reproducing these so close to print size to get the full effect of the Sunday pages, Fantagraphics created something that's awfully difficult to handle or to shelve. If the strip wasn't so triumphantly fun, I'd question continuing with these ungainly volumes, but my son is reading the second one and we're looking forward to the third later this year, and I'll shelve 'em as long as Fantagraphics prints 'em! Highly recommended!

(Originally posted July 05, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Friday, July 4, 2008

Constantine, Blaise and Rao

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. Today: reviews of Hellblazer: Tainted Love (DC/Vertigo, 1998), Modesty Blaise: Yellowstone Booty (Titan, 2008) and Sand Land (Viz, 2004).

In many of DC's contemporary collected editions, a little work on the part of some editors is sorely missed. This one, assembled before their line got so slapdash, is reader-friendly to the point of including an introduction, explaining recent events in the life of John Constantine, the powerful English mystic and con man, who, in these six stories by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, has hit rock bottom after his girlfriend Kit has left him. Constantine is easy prey for the vampires and demons who've got a grudge when he's homeless and drunk. I'm not sure that this is in any way a good introduction to the character - for Ennis-written Hellblazer, you want Dangerous Habits or Damnation's Flame, I think - but it feels like some effort and love went into this volume. The story about Kit going home to her sister in Northern Ireland is a truly beautiful piece of writing, glowing with a love of family and community. Recommended for mature readers familiar with the character.

Now I'm certain that all of you reading this have taken my advice and started reading Modesty Blaise, right? Good. Well, since there's very little continuity in the series, you can probably give this one a miss until later on. Oh, it isn't bad, don't get me wrong, but the second story, in which Peter O'Donnell gives a little too much credence to the "mystic powers of the martial arts" malarkey, brings an otherwise thrilling story of an old enemy springing a trap in Cambodia to such a damp climax that you can't help but feel a little cheated. Anyway, this reprints another 14 months of the strip, from 1978-79 and gives you the last two stories illustrated by Enric Romero before he took a hiatus to draw Axa, and the first one handled by John Burns, better known for his work painting Judge Dredd and Nikolai Dante. If you like Burns's painted art, you will really like his linework, which I find even more agreeable. Recommended for readers pretty familiar with the character.

Very, very fun stuff! Akira Toriyama is best known around the Hipster Pad for Dr. Slump, but he's best known everywhere else for Dragon Ball, a strip so phenomenally successful in Japan that it elevated Toriyama to the very rare position of being able to do whatever the heck he wants in comics and not have to sign long-term contracts to keep producing stuff every week in order to also sell the things his heart's really in. So from what I gather, he sold Shonen Jump the concept as a 14-week, fast-paced serial with a definite beginning and end. While I'm certain the magazine would prefer a 14-year Toriyama strip which they could then turn into a huge line of books, they ran the series in the summer of 2000. It's about a retired general in an arid wasteland ruled by a fat, corrupt king who asks a pair of wisecracking demons to help him find a fabled water source. The three of them steal a tank and make their way south while the military and some bizarre criminals try to stop them.

You can tell there's the background here for something that could have run a lot longer, but Toriyama resisted the opportunity for the long-winded "power-up" fights that made Dragon Ball so agonizing, and just kept to the meat of his story. It's lean, fast-paced and very funny, with goofball characters and unexpected comic twists, suggesting what Dragon Ball might have been had the pressure and the money not been so great as to keep him and his studio working on it so long past its sell-by date.

Wikipedia suggests that Sand Land has been the last comic project for Toriyama in some time, and the only one of his short post-Dragon Ball series to be collected in English, though I'm optimistic we'll see the mid-90s Dr. Slump Returns, But Only for a Little While after Viz finishes that series' original run. I understand he's wealthy enough to not have to draw comics anymore, but damn, he's too talented to stay retired, don't you think? Recommended!

(Originally posted July 04, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Contract With God and Ranma ½

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. Today: reviews of A Contract With God (Baronet, 1978) and Ranma ½ vol. 1(Viz, 2003).

It isn't the first graphic novel, nor is it really even a novel - it's a collection of four short stories. I don't know nearly enough about the late, great Will Eisner, but figured I should know more, so I hinted that something from him would make a good Father's Day present. It made a great Father's Day present. Set in and around tenement housing in the Bronx in the 1930s, these are remarkably well-told stories of struggle and unfairness. The first story's certainly the best, concerning an immigrant's plan to become important enough to force the Lord into a new contract after he feels that He broke their initial one. It's a very different and very moving experience, and recommended for older readers.

With teeth clenched, I opened the first of three dozen editions of Ranma ½, a series that Rumiko Takahashi drew for Shonen Sunday weekly from 1987-96. I remember thinking this was kind of cute for about a month in high school, and after that, its astronomical popularity among people younger and louder, so very much louder than me, made it an unwelcome prospect. But as readers of this blog know, I've spent the last couple of years finding there's a hell of a lot more to like about Ms. Takahashi than I ever knew, and so, twenty years later, I gave this another try...

And I really liked it. This was funny as hell, a completely goofy, straight-faced take on pretentious martial arts melodrama, stuck in a high school with a cast of about ten of what will surely grow to about a hundred nutball characters. I don't know that I like it enough to get on board for all three dozen editions, but I can certainly see myself picking up a few more of these when the sales are good. There's some innocuous nudity included for comedy, and if you can handle that without freaking out, then it's recommended for all readers.

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