Friday, January 23, 2009

Johnny Nemo and Stan's Soapbox

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 Johnny Nemo: Existentialist Hitman of the Future (Cyberosia, 2002) and Stan's Soapbox: The Collection (Hero Initiative, 2008).

I reread this fun little collection earlier this week. It was published by a company called Cyberosia earlier in the decade, but they would appear to have anticipated the graphic novel boom/fad a little too soon, and it doesn't look like they're around currently. I had no idea this book existed until I found it in the cheap shelves at Heroes Aren't Hard to Find in Charlotte a couple of years back.

It compiles several adventures of Peter Milligan and Brett Ewins' hyperfashionable 30th-Century tough guy private eye which were originally published in the mid-1980s, first in the indie anthology Strange Days and later in Deadline. Unfortunately, it doesn't include any background details, so it is impossible to determine just how many of Nemo's bizarre cases made the cut for this collection. I don't imagine that it's complete, and the optimistic "volume one" on the front just reinforces that view.

The stories themselves are dated by their design. Ewins' world is one where the shoulderpads and skinny ties of 1984 never went out of style even as the architecture morphed into the "thin-tower with a mushrooming penthouse" future look that was common in Keith Giffen's LSH at the time. Steve Dillon contributes one tale which is just gorgeous to look at, and there are a pair of text adventures which only show just how well Ewins and Dillon use pacing in the comic adventures for much better comedic effect.

Nemo himself is a hilarious presence, an unstoppable alpha male who confidently finds the solution to outlandish sci-fi situations involving exploding nuns and the magical power of Bing Crosby. It's telling that the book was published with a glowing quote from Warren Ellis on the back. I've not read much Ellis - probably just enough to know that I'm not especially interested in Ellis - but I think his fans will quickly see that his characters Lazarus Churchyard, Spider Jerusalem and Elijah Snow all have Nemo as their spiritual godfather. Recommended, therefore, for fans of either Milligan or Ellis. I can't see this really converting anybody not familiar with their work already.

Face front, true believers! The Hero Initiative, an organization which provides supplemental medical care and other benefits for comic book veterans in need of assistance, came up with this wild and woolly trip through the sixties and seventies via the eyes of Marvel Comics' one-and-only Smilin' Stan Lee!

As any tried-and-true FOOM knows, Smilin' Stan used to write a little column in each month's Bullpen Bulletins. Stan's Soapbox was in equal parts a place to hype forthcoming projects, be it the first bookshelf collections of Mighty Marvel storylines, calendars or short-lived magazine ventures like Pizzaz, or personal appearances at various college campuses, or just use the soapbox to talk a little about current events.

Alongside a running narrative of current events, both at Marvel and on the world stage, this slim book reprints all of Stan's Soapboxes, along with remembrances from other creators and current Marvel editorial bods. Honestly, I found the book completely charming, and the design and layout are quite nice. Certainly it's not a book to be read cover-to-cover, but if you grew up in what that mysterious blogger known only as The Groovy Agent has termed the Groovy Age of Comics, then this is a superb little distraction, and probably could be read very well in tandem with one of these recent coffeetable histories of Marvel, like that new Marvel Chronicle book that came out late last year. Recommended for people born between 1965 and 1975.

I figured out that the best way to do these periodic reviews without getting bored will be to chiefly review books that aren't part of a series. I might find cause to mention a series in the monthly Reprint This! update, if I can do that right!, but otherwise I'm usually only going to mention stand-alone books in this column. That will mean fewer of them, but also fewer examples of me trying to explain how volume 14 of Dr. Slump is that much different from volume 13. That should keep things more readable.

(Originally posted January 23, 2009 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Strontium Dog: The Kreeler Conspiracy

In other news, Rebellion has continued its series of Strontium Dog collections with The Kreeler Conspiracy. This follows up the five-volume "Search/Destroy Agency Files" which reprinted the entirety of the original run of the series. This book, unnumbered on its spine, reprints three of the first four adventures from the revived series. It starts with the titular "Kreeler Conspiracy" (mentioned here in Thrillpowered Thursday a couple of weeks ago) and also includes the very fun serials "Roadhouse" and "The Tax Dodge." Lost in the shuffle, sadly, is the one-off adventure "The Sad Case," which originally appeared in Prog 2001, and was presumably left behind for space reasons, and which we hope to see in a future collection.

Despite that story's absence, the book's a fun, meaty little exercise in plotting, as Johnny Alpha and Wulf Sternhammer face challenges that require them to use their wits more than their firepower. "The Tax Dodge" is especially fun, as the bounty hunting duo are faced with a representative of customs and excise on one side, and a very amusing alien race on the other. These guys, easily-offended, overcompensating loudmouths with quick tempers, are among the funniest alien species to ever appear in 2000 AD. All three stories are by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, and this book is very highly recommended!

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday, January 22, 2009.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Kingdom of the Wicked and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

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 Kingdom of the Wicked (Dark Horse, 2005) and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Bloomsbury, 2004).

Kingdom of the Wicked, a stand-alone novel by the Leviathan / Stickleback team of Ian Edginton and D'Israeli, has much in common with their other joint works, featuring dreamlike recreations of an England long passed into fiction. It concerns an author of children's books who has recently been suffering from terrible seizures and awakening in a fairytale dreamland that he had constructed as a boy. But the land is at war with a powerful enemy, and the imaginary friends with whom he'd once played have been hardened by decades of brutality and ugliness.

This is not much of a complaint, but I found the book to be much more thrilling before the mystery of what is happening in Castrovalva was revealed. It never becomes by-the-numbers, apart from some ponderous "final confrontation" threats between the villain and the hero, but there is a feeling of inevitablity which Edginton and D'Israeli have periodically subverted (notably in Scarlet Traces and the first series of Stickleback) with more success than here. They are much more successful in capturing and subverting the feel of A.A. Milne and Great War-era fiction in establishing a sense of place to ground Castrovalva, and D'Israeli's art is, as ever, masterful. Recommended.

"It is the task of the Book to bear the words. Which I do. It is the task of the Reader to know what they say."
"But the last Reader is dead!"

If you are like me, you've probably seen this book a few times and heard a good word about it here and there, but never quite made the jump to buying it. I was not completely certain what to expect in this alternate history of magic in the period of the Napoleonic Wars, but within fifteen pages, I was completely captivated, and when I realized one morning last week that my reading had taken me past the halfway point of the book, I was briefly saddened to learn that my time with these people and places would soon be finished.

Susannah Clarke plays with the conventions of period novels with a real sense of wit and joy. Jane Austen is evoked in some gushing quote on the cover, but there's a sense of Dickens as well, especially when you hit chapters in which minor characters from much earlier in the narrative resurface for what feels on its face like a fill-in episode in this month's edition of a serialized novel, but readers will quickly learn how elements from these chapters will become important later on. Also, Clarke uses footnotes - hundreds of them - to fill in the great backstory of England's magical past, refer to books that we cannot quite read and, from time to time, hint towards future developments.

I do love an author who can foreshadow as well as Clarke does while simultaneously drawing reader's attention away from the slight-of-hand she is using. About fifty pages from the end, I finally realized something which chould have been as plain as the nose on my face about six hundred pages previously in the hands of a lesser author, setting me up for a tremendously thrilling and satisfying conclusion. This was certainly a book I didn't object to staying up very late to finish.

Those popular booksellers Barnes & Noble offer a $7 edition of this mammoth book in their discounted section. Since I can be every bit as fussy about books as Mr Norrell himself, I find it disagreeable to hold this edition, which evokes nineteenth-century printing with its ever-so-uneven paper width. If you are less of a nitpicker than me, then I assure you that the investment shall be amply rewarded with this highly recommended volume.

(Originally posted January 14, 2009 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files vol. 11

In other news, Rebellion's ongoing series of Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, now with slightly modified trade dress, including a gold badge in place of the U on the spine, and color on the front cover, has reached the eleventh edition, reprinting 50 episodes from the heady days of 1987-88. Writers John Wagner and Alan Grant began winding down their regular collaboration and embarked on one final hurrah together: the 26-part epic "Oz," in which the recurring recalcitrant menace Chopper escapes Mega-City One custody and flies to the Sydney-Melbourne Conurb on his flying surfboard to take place in Supersurf 10. Judge Dredd is in hot pursuit, but it turns out that the "escape" was engineered to give Dredd a big, public reason to be stomping around a foreign Mega-City; there's a lost "tribe" of bizarre cloned judges with outlandish technology operating from the nearby radback...

Outside of "Oz," there's plenty to enjoy in this book. You get the first appearance of eleven year-old psycho killer PJ Maybe, a second scrap with a recurring villain called Stan Lee - the world's greatest martial artist! - and so much great artwork by the likes of Steve Dillon, Brett Ewins, Brendan McCarthy and Cliff Robinson. But "Oz" is definitely the selling point here. The volume, sadly, does not correct a pair of misprinted pages (the first two pages of episode three were printed in the wrong order in 1987 and no reprint has ever corrected the error), but the story is downright amazing, a wonderful, loopy adventure with several twists and unexpected detours. It's so much more than the standard devastation of the city by Sovs/robots/terrorists/Judge Death that you often see in the big, six-month Dredd epics, and the final six episodes, in which Chopper races in the insane skysurfing match, will leave you breathless. Reading that story one chunk a week was agonizing in the spring of 1988! Highly recommended.

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009)