Thursday, April 30, 2009

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files vol. 12

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files vol. 12 (Rebellion, 2009).

Readers of this blog are certainly aware of Rebellion's wonderful series of Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, which are reprinting every episode that appeared in the weekly. With the twelfth collection, released in February, the publishers have chosen to follow the strip's lead and reprint the color episodes, which began in 1988, as they originally appeared. This does mean that the books have to be a little smaller than previously - what had been 400-page collections are now 320-page volumes on better paper - but given the choice of seeing Will Simpson's beautiful painted art or Chris Weston's earliest professional pages reproduced as muddy grayscale, Rebellion has certainly made the right choice.

Writers John Wagner and Alan Grant elected to end their successful partnership following the epic "Oz," which was reprinted in the eleventh Case File. This collection contains a final handful of their co-written stories, but from there it is mostly Wagner flying solo. Grant contributes some fine one-offs, including one that sets up a later Anderson: Psi Division storyline, along with the expected pop culture parodies. Wagner has the bulk of the action, including some wonderful, moving stories which focus on the citizens caught up in the Mega-City madness. The installments concerning the mutating Eleanor Groth, painted by Simpson, and some John Ridgway-illustrated episodes set in a nursing home where a resident suspects the staff of euthanasia, are truly fantastic. Here, again, is a book that belongs on every comic-lovers' bookshelf.

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite (Dark Horse, 2008).

I was initially very skeptical about trying a comic book written by a musician; something about the project initially felt like those celebrity cash-in comics, Leonard Nimoy's Primortals or something. Enough good reviews persuaded me to try it, and I'm very glad I did. Gerard Way's tale of a deeply dysfunctional superpowered family reads exactly like the Grant Morrison comics I wish he was still writing. Mix the backstory of Task Force UK and Cloud Nine from Zenith into the world of his Doom Patrol and you've got a good idea of what to expect.

Gabriel Ba's artwork is a little more problematic. I had a tough time adjusting to his style on Casanova and this is even more stylized and has a harsh, flat appearance. He does a great job making all of the characters distinctive and unique, but their world is simply ugly and unpleasant.

Overall, it is a very entertaining book. I appreciate Way's decision to give us just a few hints about all the backstory and throw us in towards what appears to be the end of the Umbrella Academy's long and not-entirely happy career. A pair of bonus episodes fills in a little more of their history. It's a very good presentation of a very good comic; I'll certainly look in on the Umbrella Academy again in the future. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Albion: Origins

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Albion: Origins (Titan, 2007).

A couple of weeks ago, I told you about Albion, a misfire of a series which sought to resurrect a number of classic British comic characters. In a neat bit of cross-company promotion, the good fellows over at Titan Books assembled a hardcover tie-in volume called Albion: Origins which presented some of the characters' original appearances. Featuring new artwork by Brian Bolland on its dustjacket, it's a good introduction for curious readers and a fine nostalgia property for people who've sampled this sort of material previously.

It's a little uneven, and I think the indestructible hero of Kelly's Eye gets a few pages more than he really warrants when everything else in the book is more entertaining, but it's a perfectly nice sampler. Kelly's Eye is represented by a single, 22-part serial written by Tom Tully that has him fighting a mad Seminole warlord in the Everglades. It's fun, albeit incredibly dated.

Three other stories are featured: House of Dolmann is represented by four one-off adventures and a two-parter. Victorian escapologist Janus Stark gets two one-offs and a two-parter, and the mysterious mage Cursitor Doom features in a terrific six-part story. I've read some of Doom's adventures before, renamed for some reason as "Amadeus Wolf" in the old horribly-colored Quality Comics anthology Spellbinders, and would love to see more of this gorgeous Eric Bradbury artwork.

I think it's a pretty good sampler, but personal petulance does color my overall feelings about it. I'm still hoping for second volumes of The Steel Claw and King of Crooks from Titan, but there's a feeling that this book is effectively "volume three" of Titan's look back at old characters, with nothing new on the horizon. I really hope Titan ramps up production on heritage books like this. Even with the Kelly's Eye story being the weakest of the four features, I still recommend this for all readers.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Monsters of Templeton

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of The Monsters of Templeton (Voice, 2008).

Most modern fiction that I've enjoyed - House of Leaves, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, World War Z - has been written in a style that steps away from traditional narrative, incorporating different perspectives or faux-historical documentation. So when my bride-to-be finished Lauren Groff's debut novel The Monsters of Templeton, she knew I'd enjoy it and passed it straight to me.

I certainly did like it, with some reservations. Groff has done a masterful job creating a vibrant community full of interesting, believable characters, and populated a family tree which goes back several generations. Many of these people tell their own stories by way of recovered documents, hidden letters and photographs, and it is all pretty engrossing stuff. The present-day narrative is about Willie Upton, a young doctoral student who comes back to her hometown of Templeton, a stand-in for baseball's home of Cooperstown, after a bad affair with one of her professors. Home, Willie begins unravelling her family tree after her mother tells Willie that she has a father in town that she never knew; the story she'd believed all her life about an unknown dad somewhere on the West Coast was never true. Willie begins researching to uncover one strange secret from her influential family's history and finds quite a few more than she bargained for.

I was really unsatsfied by one point: the book only exists because Willie's mother is tight-lipped and refuses to answer the questions Willie needs. The journey is fun enough, and told in such an interesting way, that this monstrous plot problem is effectively papered over, but it can't help but feel inconsequential when the book is inevitably going to reach a climax which Vi could have provided around page 40. Or, put another way, it's the style of this book which I ended up enjoying more than the substance. I enjoyed that style a good deal, but I don't see this as a novel to which I'll return when the exercise, no matter how entertaining, feels ultimately pointless. I'd recommended this novel for group reading or book clubs, though, because it's certain to spark discussion.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Showcase Presents Justice League of America Volume Four

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Showcase Presents Justice League of America volume four (DC, 2009).

When I was a kid, devouring whatever comics I could find, Justice League of America was my favorite book, and I've learned that those 1970s adventures hold up surprisingly well. However, getting to those heady days of the book's best run was occasionally quite a chore, as this run of Showcase Presents collections has shown. The title spent most of the sixties being as tedious as superhero funnybooks can get, with the usual team of Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky and Sid Greene turning out increasingly weird, convoluted, hard-to-follow plots starring a bunch of identikit circus strongmen. The stories were baffling and the art was boring. I found myself flipping through most of the third Showcase collection without really reading any of it.

Mercifully, the fourth volume in this series, covering the book's 1968-70 run, is when it finally gets good. It starts with the final few stories from this team, showing just how ridiculous and ugly this book had been. The first of these was covered in hilarious detail by J. Caleb Mozzocco over at his Every Day is Like Wednesday blog earlier this month. You should go check out that review to see what I'm talking about, then pop back here.

After a few of these nutball comics, Fox is replaced as writer by Denny O'Neil, who chose to emphasize character over plot, and this, finally, is the beginning of the JLA I fondly remember as a boy. Fox's League was a gang of clones and any panel's thought balloon could be attached to any character's head; O'Neil, who was writing Green Arrow's solo adventures at the time and turning him into the strident liberal loudmouth we all know and love, starts with the character's differences and lets their personality clashes fuel the drama.

The other huge, long overdue, change is with the art. Sekowsky is replaced as penciller by Dick Dillin. The change isn't instantly evident, because Sid Greene's inks still overpower what the penciller wants to do. Greene isn't a good match for Dillin - he uses two lines, heavy or light, when Dillin's art screams out for someone who can bring all the tricks he wants to life. However, Dillin's layouts are more interesting, and the characters no longer have that barrel-chested torso that Sekowsky used for the whole cast. When Greene is replaced by Joe Giella, the book finally looks as good as it should, with vibrant artwork that just sings off the page. A few years later, Frank McLaughlin would become Dillin's principal inker, and it was their work that thrilled me so much when I was a kid, but Giella's just about as good.

So in the 500 pages you get in this book, you'll see about 100 pages of the original team, about 200 of the transitional period, and about 200 very solid, very entertaining pages of superhero/sci-fi fun. I can't recommend this as strongly as I could the eventual next volume in the series, which will be essential, but if you enjoy superhero comics, this is certainly worth checking out.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Judge Dredd: The Pit

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Judge Dredd: The Pit (Rebellion, 2009).

In January, Rebellion released the long-awaited collection of the 1995-96 Dredd epic "The Pit." This 30-part epic, written by John Wagner and illustrated by Carlos Ezquerra, Colin MacNeil, Lee Sullivan and Alex Ronald, was the subject of a Thrillpowered Thursday entry back in 2007, where I explained it as a "change in the status quo that sees Dredd assigned to new duties in one of the Meg's remote regions, where rather than doing the job of a senior street judge, he's assigned to the task of sector chief. It turns out that the Dredd formula works incredibly well as an ensemble police procedural, which was a huge surprise to everybody, including the writer."

"The Pit" is remembered, not because of an outrageous, high-concept plot like many of the big epics of the series, but because Judge Dredd lends itself astonishingly well to overlapping subplots and unique, individual judges with their own perspectives on the proceedings. It's an important story which introduced two of the more interesting recurring characters of Dredd's modern cast, Judges DeMarco and Guthrie, as well as providing further details about the criminal Frendz organization which would be an ongoing menace for the next few years. The entire cast is made up of interesting, sympathetic characters, and as events wind their way from a search for a rogue undercover "Wally Squad" judge to an all-out war with a powerful mob kingpin's forces, through a sector house full of flawed cops trying to do their jobs, it's easy to get completely caught up in events. It's a terrific story, with fabulous contributions from some great artists.

Long overdue for this new edition, "The Pit" has been unavailable for quite some time, since Hamlyn's old version went out of print, and Titan, the next company to issue collected editions, never put their own together. This is one that Rebellion should definitely keep around, and promote to new readers as a fine introduction to Judge Dredd. Whether you're new to the character or an old fan, "The Pit" is certainly a story that every bookshelf should have.

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday.)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Dennis the Menace vol. 5 and Searle in the Sixties

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, reviews of Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace 1959-1960 (volume five) (Fantagraphics, 2009) and Searle in the Sixties (Penguin, 1964).

A couple of weeks back, I was mentioning how Monkey Punch's linework on Lupin III in the sixties evoked both Hank Ketcham and Ronald Searle to me. And here are a couple of books from these two. Fantagraphics has been releasing Dennis the Menace in two-year volumes for a while now, and I said when they started, after having my mind blown by how remarkable the earliest stuff with this character was, that I doubted it would be worth following beyond the fifth book. Well, the fifth book is here, and I was mistaken. I should have stopped at four.

True, I laughed three or four times reading this, and there are certainly places where Ketcham kicks his reliably beautiful inking into overdrive and pulls out some eyepoppingly amazing work. I stared at a panel of Dennis and his dad fishing by a gnarled old tree for at least five minutes, marvelling at how gorgeous Ketcham made that scene look. But I also turned past several pages with my eyes rolled, not popped, as Dennis says his bedtime prayers and tells Mrs. Wilson how comfy her lap is. Dennis may have started his career so remarkably menacing that he'd have driven that British kid of the same name running in terror, but five books in and this little scamp is more Walter the Softy, to be blunt. Recommended for cartoonists and artists, and nobody else.

Ever since I read the complete St. Trinian's book (your Hipster Dad's Best Book of 2008), I've been keeping an eye out for old editions of Ronald Searle's work, and found this lovely Penguin paperback at the Book Eddy in Knoxville. This is one of my very favorite bookstores, and I'm already looking forward to stopping back by sometime in July. Searle in the Sixties is a collection of illustrations he'd done over a four-year period for magazines ranging from Punch to Sports Illustrated, ranging from bizarre caricatures to travelogues of everywhere from Las Vegas to Paris to Sanibel Island, of all places.

Searle's love of lines is evident in every picture, and I adore how his focus finds the most comical element of any situation and draws attention to it. A drawing inside a burlesque show is not about the topless cutie on the stage, but the table of old codgers with their noses in the air looking at her. The material from European travelogues and portraits is perhaps even more interesting. Even if I don't know who some of the players are, I really get the impression that Searle has illustrated the Swinging London of Ready, Steady, Go! and That Was The Week That Was better than anybody else.

This book is long out of print, and according to the back cover was never available in the US "for copyright reasons," but you can pick up a copy from used book dealers by clicking the picture above. If you like art or you like the sixties, I recommend you do so!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Jack Kirby's The Forever People

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Jack Kirby's The Forever People (DC, 1999).

DC was very slow to follow Marvel's lead with thick, cheap black-and-white reprint volumes of old comics. Before they started their line of Showcase Presents, they tested the waters with four or five volumes reprinting Jack Kirby's early-70s line of interconnected "New Gods" features. Unlike the Marvel books, and the later Showcase books, these are not simply straight reproductions from uncolored films, but they've been given an interesting grayscale wash, for lack of a better term. I think the result is really nice, and the book looks fantastic.

The Forever People first appeared in a bimonthly comic that ran from 1971-72. It features a group of superpowered teenaged hippie weirdoes from the planet New Genesis, a world locked in eternal war with Apokolips and its evil ruler Darkseid, to find one of their number whom Darkseid has abducted. Since humanity holds some key to Darkseid's long-term plans, they stick around to protect us from the villain's varied schemes.

It really was a fun rollercoaster of a book, and I surprised myself by enjoying it more than the "parent" New Gods title. Kirby only completed the briefest beginnings of his projected long-running epic before poor distribution and low sales prompted DC to cancel the books, but what you've got here is almost three hundred pages of wild action and over-the-top adventure, with some very fun characters.

This collection is out of print, but available from some Amazon sellers and stores with a good backstock. It's since been superceded by a four-volume series that reprints all the "Fourth World" stories in color and in their original publication order, rather than collecting them by title. Whichever edition you find, this comes highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Albion (DC/Wildstorm, 2006).

In a perfect world, Albion would have been a mammoth hit, sparking a fabulous revival of the wonderful characters of British comics' silver age and bringing all their old adventures back into print. But I suppose in that perfect world, Albion itself would have been more memorable and impressive than it actually is. It's the story of missed opportunities and a comic that reads like the rough draft of something that should have been so much better.

A quick recounting of the plot kind of goes like this: Danny, a young fellow who loves the same old British newspaper comics that I do, realizes that a newly-apprehended criminal is the villainous old Leo Baxendale character Grimly Feendish. He joins the mob outside the police station, calls out the rascal by his real name, is grabbed and spirited off by someone who turns out to be Bad Penny, the daughter of Eric Dollman, and pressganged into rebuilding Robot Archie and joining forces with Charlie Peace in order to free Grimly, Mytek the Mighty, Cursitor Doom, the Spider, the Steel Claw, Faceache, Captain Hurricane and a host of others from the remote prison where the former Eagle-Eye Junior Spy and Zip Nolan are keeping them.

This should have been the greatest comic ever. It's nowhere close.

A really big part of its failure is down to Shane Oakley's art. He proves himself, via the flashbacks, to be a talented fellow, able to use multiple styles, but the main narrative is one of the ugliest comics I've tried to follow. There's a disorienting flatness to the characters, and distortion and curvature where we should see solid objects. It's not just that the page is two-dimensional, but rather the world the characters inhabit is equally flat. It's incredibly frustrating, especially when compared to the simiarly busy, Easter egg-filled world of, say, Top 10, when you consider how good this book should have looked.

But Oakley could have turned out a world as rich as Ha and Cannon's and this book would still be a mess, easily one of Alan Moore's weakest stories. Alan only plotted the book, and gave it to the writing team of his daughter Leah and her husband John Reppion to script. They're said to have improved remarkably since this initial stumble, and their forthcoming Sherlock Holmes comic is much anticipated. Somewhere between the writing and the art, so much is fumbled, and tired comic cliches are wheeled out. It even begins looking boring, with a standard early-90s Keith Giffen nine-panel page of the same repeated image of a single character, with minimal lighting changes, while two other unseen characters talk around him.

The list of apalling storytelling just goes on. Scenes abruptly end after two pages, regardless of whether they've actually reached a sensible stopping point. New characters are dumped into the narrative without explanation or introduction. This is an enormous problem throughout the prison sequences, most of which are impossible to follow without Damian Gordon's online annotations. It's simplicity itself to just have characters refer to each other by name the first time we meet them in each issue, or in the case of a dramatic buildup, tell us who we're about to meet. The cliffhanger to issue two is one of the dampest failures in the book, when a character who, after a little chin-scratching, we conclude is probably Captain Hurricane is dumped on us with no drama or sting.

Yet I think even all this could have been overcome had Bad Penny not been the most baffling, illogical character I've ever been forced to follow. Acting like she's come from evening classes at Unfair Warren Ellis Stereotype Academy, all dyed hair, chain-smoking, tough girl attitude and a refusal to explain the situation to Danny, not one word of their "relationship" is at all believable. It doesn't make sense for her to rely on and confide in Danny purely because he recognizes Grimly Feendish, and it doesn't make sense for him to stick around. If this is detailed further in the last episode, when we learn more about Danny, it sailed over my head, and I didn't follow Gordon's annotations that far.

Albion's commercial failure was unfortunate, but it did have a pair of nice legacies. DC/Wildstorm commissioned a pair of miniseries about old IPC characters in its wake. One of these, Battler Britton by Garth Ennis and Colin Wilson, was simply wonderful and it wouldn't have existed without Albion. Additionally, Titan Books released a tie-in collection of some of these old stories, Albion Origins, which I'll be coming back to in a few weeks. And the collected edition of this story does contain a handful of old episodes of some of these comics, even if the Zip Nolan pages are reproduced disagreeably small. It's not a complete failure, even if my personal frustrations are so high as to overwhelm any of the good that might be here, but I would nevertheless only recommend this to Alan Moore devotees who've already tackled almost everything else that's available.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Apollo's Song

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of Apollo's Song (Vertical, 2007).

Since Vertical has been doing such a wonderful job repackaging some of Osamu Tezuka's more familiar comics in the last year or so, I decided to give some of their earlier efforts a try. Naturally, I would love to own them all, and wish I had the disposable income to get everything they've released, but for now, I just settled on Apollo's Song, a done-in-one omnibus edition of a strange serial that Tezuka penned in 1970 for the magazine Shonen King.

Over 500-plus pages, we follow the story of a young sociopath called Shogo, whose unhappy upbringing has made him violently enraged by anybody expressing love, and who takes out his wrath on animals. The court sentences him to a facility where he's given electroshock treatment, and hallucinates that he's been sent, helpless, to appear before a love goddess who has her own sentence on him. From there, Shogo drifts to other lives in other pasts or worlds where he can learn a lesson or two about being true to his emotions, and understanding what loss really means.

It's a very strange, but very engrossing story. Somehow, Shogo becomes a sympathetic character despite everything he's done, and the worlds where Tezuka dumps the kid are fascinating. Oddest of all is an island where Shogo and a photographer are stranded, alongside a menagerie of intelligent animals who have their own surprising take on discretion while mating... sort of a reverse elephant's graveyard.

I liked this a lot, and was completely taken by each of the new worlds Shogo is sent. The artwork is terrific and constantly surprising, both in concept and execution - a graveyard in the future story is a complete stunner - and there's so much going on under the surface that any reader will find a great deal of subtext to reconsider. On the other hand, I was displeased that Vertical flipped the artwork to read English-direction. Happily, they've stopped this practice. Although possibly not the very best first choice for your Tezuka library, this comes recommended for older readers.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The VCs: You're Hit, You're Dead!

In other news, while Rebellion tends to focus on releasing collections from more recent properties or big name characters, every so often they do head back to the comic's early days and surprise everybody with a great book full of thrillpower from the past. Such is the case with this new edition of The VCs. This is the original run of 32 episodes from 1979-1980. Most of the installments are written by Gerry Finley-Day, with a couple of fill-ins by Steve MacManus. The art is principally by Cam Kennedy, who contributed the cover, and Garry Leach. Mike McMahon drew the first episode and John Richardson the last five, but everything between them is by Kennedy or Leach. Probably nobody finds that as interesting as I do.

Anyway, The VCs is a pretty standard war story, just dressed up with aliens and spaceships in it. There's the green rookie, disliked by his new crew, and ugly enemies you can neither understand nor sympathize with, and trapped-behind-enemy-lines stories, and callous officers who probably interact with our heroes more than any other company in the military. That's not to say it's at all bad, but I reread this while continuing a once-a-week reread of Battle Picture Weekly produced during the same 1979-80 period and darned if this series couldn't have been flawlessly slotted into that comic. If you enjoy this style of comic storytelling, then The VCs will certainly please you, even if it's only rarely eye-opening.

Actually, I should probably qualify that: if you're coming to this from an American background, there's a lot more to this than simply "another war comic." I grew up reading DC's Sgt. Rock and The Haunted Tank, and later Marvel's G.I. Joe, with their casts of unkillable regular characters. Compared to these, British war comics are a complete revelation, with surprising fatalities among the cast. Any new reader coming to this collection will probably be pretty surprised by this story as it progresses.

There were 32 episodes of The VCs, but this is a pretty slim book, since the episodes were an unusually short 3-4 pages a week. It runs a little light on extras, since there were so few from the period. The strip was spotlighted on 2000 AD's cover only once, and there was a single star scan of the lead cast a few weeks after it finished, and those are included, but there are no other contributions from the period from any of the creators. In lieu of blank pages filling up too much of the back, the first episode of Finley-Day's better-known future war series, Rogue Trooper is included, but honestly, I'm hard pressed to imagine anybody buying this collection who hasn't already read the first Rogue episode plenty of times already. That's not to say that I don't think potential readers are out there, and I hope you'll give it a read, just that I'm not really sure this was the best use of the pages in the back when a new interview would have been very nice.

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday.)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

James Bond: Polestar

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded. This time, a review of James Bond: Polestar (volume seventeen) (Titan, 2008).

At last, we've reached the end of Titan's reprints of the James Bond newspaper strip. Well, not quite... while this edition finishes up the run with the strip's final two stories from British papers, and three others which had only seen print in Europe, Titan was forced to skip over two books which should have reprinted 1970s adventures because of some unspecified problem or other, and those are due out later on. But arranged sequentially, this is book seventeen, even though it's the fifteenth published.

You can tell I don't have a lot to say about this one, can't you? There's just so little of interest here. Lawrence's work on the strip was frequently patchy, with clever ideas offset by downright dumb ones, but there's nothing in these five stories worth remembering. The artwork is uninspired and even the reliable Yaroslav Horak, returning for his first Bond stories in many years, was on autopilot. The villainous schemes are eye-rollingly silly and the plots are childishly simple.

Put another way, the baddie in the title story disposes of his enemies by stripping them naked and kicking them into the arctic snow to freeze to death. But they somehow die standing up, so that Bond can find gorgeous naked ladies in blocks of ice. Add to this trained attack bats and fake sea serpents and a "punk" rock star who wouldn't have been out of place on Quincy but commands the biggest worldwide audience you ever saw, and I can't even recommend this mess to Bond fans, only completists.