Friday, May 22, 2009

The Beekeeper's Apprentice

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 Beekeeper's Apprentice (St. Martin's Press, 1994).

There's just never enough time, is there? I've been curious about Laurie R. King's stories of Sherlock Holmes' later life and his time as mentor to the young detective Mary Russell in the 1920s for simply ages, and I only this month cleared enough stuff from the reading pile to tackle the first of King's eight novels in the series. The Beekeeper's Apprentice has fifteen year-old Mary Russell run across the retired Holmes in Sussex. Holmes has retained the services of his old housekeeper, and she encourages the headstrong, incredibly intelligent Mary to visit again. Over time, Holmes takes Mary under his wing as his apprentice, and they work a couple of small local cases where she proves her abilities.

It's only after Mary goes to college that the stakes are raised considerably. When the daughter of an American politician is abducted, the parents insist that Holmes be called from retirement to track down the criminals, and Mary leaves the dormitory to join him on the trail. But their success finds them a new and dangerous enemy, who has been waiting for many years to make a move against Holmes...

Honestly, I enjoyed this even more than I thought I might. Sherlock Holmes pastiches are a dime a dozen (three years back, I discussed William Baring-Gould, pretty much the patron saint of fanfic), but I thought this was done with a light touch and an honest commitment to keeping true to Doyle's character while presenting him from another angle. The story is told as though Mary, much later in life, has taken up Dr. Watson's old job as Holmes's biographer and has written her own memoirs for later publication.

Russell tells us more about her own life and experiences than Watson ever did, and it is very fun to read about her days in college in 1918. With twinkling references both to the original canon (fifteen year-old Mary asking what will happen in the next installment of the then-serialized Valley of Fear) and fan speculation (Irene Adler, although not that giant rat), it's clear that Laurie King has done a great deal of research to make her novel appealing to either beginning readers or veterans. I had a great time reading it, and I look forward to starting her second novel later this summer.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Melvin Monster / Nancy # 1

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 Melvin Monster / Nancy # 1 (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009).

Over at my Reprint This! blog, I've mentioned the forthcoming John Stanley Library from Drawn & Quarterly. To promote the books, the publisher released a neat 32-page flip book on Free Comic Book Day earlier this month. It gives you 16 pages of Melvin Monster and 16 pages of the comic book version of Ernie Bushmiller's strip Nancy and it is all kinds of fun.

I really don't remember ever seeing Melvin before. My son got hold of this comic before me and reported that Melvin was really funny and asked if I was going to be getting any more of it. Melvin apparently was released quarterly for only nine issues in the late sixties by Dell, and was clearly inspired by the Addams Family, the Munsters, the Groovy Ghoulies and their lovable type. Melvin really wants to be a good kid, which doesn't set well with his father ("Baddy"), or monster schoolteachers who don't want to be bothered teaching anybody anything. It's great stuff, with at least two wonderful gags on every page. I can't wait for the full edition, which should be out in a few weeks.

Nancy can't help but pale by comparison. It's still very entertaining stuff, and this sampler introduces the bizarre little girl Oona Goosepimple, who lives in a haunted house, but just not as grin-inducing as Melvin Monster. We'll have to see how the summer finances go before I can commit to the Nancy book, put it that way. The sampler also confirms that a collection of Stanley's Thirteen (Going on Eighteen) is due in the autumn. The books are all designed by Seth, and look wonderful. I'm looking forward to more, and recommend you check into getting a copy of this freebie comic for yourself to see what you think!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Black Jack volume 4

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 Black Jack vol. four (Vertical, 2009).

I haven't written anything about Osamu Tezuka in a little while (but stay tuned to my Reprint This! blog for more about him next month), and while I've elected against reviewing every book in a series, I did want to mention, for those six or seven of you out there who haven't signed on to the medical mysteries of Black Jack that Vertical is up to the fifth of their planned seventeen-volume series. Book five is due to ship to US stores in a week or so, but, eternally behind, I just finished the fourth collection and wanted to tell you how fun it is.

Vertical and Diamond have concluded their three-book run of variant, hardcover editions, and so now they're all paperbacks only. Book three, incidentally, included a wonderful little essay detailing the original publication history of the series and details of the twelve episodes of Black Jack that Tezuka declined to ever reprint, so trainspotters out there like myself definitely need to pick that one up. From the fourth book, it's paperback-only editions, each one reprinting more than a dozen episodes. You get the expected wonderful mix of artwork that rockets from vibrant and exaggerated to extremely detailed, unpredictable stories that take an already wild premise and run in crazy directions with it, and one of my favorite characters in comics: a self-assured, unbelievably talented, stoic but all-too-human doctor pitting his skills against far-out diseases and all-too common beauracracy and corporate greed. Sometimes it seems the done-in-one episodic nature feels a little constricting, but Tezuka was so darn talented that he could even have characters break the fourth wall and remind their fellows that this isn't a serial and they only have eight pages to finish, and it feels like the most natural thing in the world.

I realize I'm not saying much about Black Jack that hasn't already been said, but these really are some of the best comics ever, and your bookshelf is demanding them. Vertical definitely deserves your support for this wonderful series of releases, and I hope the market stays strong to keep it going 'til the end. Very highly recommended.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye

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 Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye # 1-2 (Vertigo, 2009).

Well, this is a little more like a step in the right direction. Honestly, even hardcore Grant Morrison apologists like myself have to admit that he's been rudderless lately, wasting our time and his with impenetrable messes like Final Crisis, where every imaginative moment was lost in a tidal wave of poor transitions and incoherent storytelling.

Seaguy was first seen in a 2004 miniseries, one of three that Morrison did for Vertigo that year. From the beginning, it felt like there was a lot more to this odd world that he and Cameron Stewart had designed than we would ever see. There's no place in Seaguy's universe that's identifiably our world, instead it is populated by allegories and pastiches from our history of fiction and literature. Seaguy himself, bored and restless and longing for the adventure that the architects of his world had long ago completed, caught our attention because we could really identify with his energy and desire. Compare this to Final Crisis, where readers can't identify with anybody in the narrative.

Honestly, Morrison's been fumbling so badly the last couple of years that I wasn't confident he could pull off the new three-part adventure, but it works extremely well. From the bizarre reconstructions of long-dead monsters, made from bone and from twentieth-century household items, to the retired gladiator who refuses to miss a turn on an amusement park ride to the very concept of our hero being banished into a trap of a world that bears a strong resemblance to Carmen, there's a strong allegory about the nature of fiction, particularly modern superhero fiction, running under the bizarre surface of Seaguy's adventure. It's very like TV's The Prisoner, where Patrick McGoohan is playing a character who's more than just the fictional "Number Six." Everything in Seaguy is rich with multiple meanings and commentary, and it's an entertaining read from start to, well, middle. The story will wrap up next month, and I can't guess what will happen next. Whether you're just interested in the wild surface ride or curious about Morrison's meta-commentary, this comes highly recommended.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Kingdom: The Promised Land

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 Kingdom: The Promised Land (Rebellion, 2008).

In other news, Rebellion recently issued "The Promised Land," the first collected edition of Kingdom, a very pleasant surprise from the Atavar team of Dan Abnett and Richard Elson which debuted without hoopla in December 2006 and proceeded to knock all the readers on their backsides with its incredibly clever take on the hoary old post-apocalypse genre.

Giving away too much about Kingdom would really spoil the great pleasure in watching it unfold and learning about the wild and dangerous world the creators put together. It starts with a pack of nine foot-tall genetically engineered dog-soldiers patrolling a wintry landscape and chopping apart hideous, slimy alien bug-things. The pack's alpha male is called Gene the Hackman and like the others, he speaks in slow, careful, simple sentences. The dialogue is countered by a surprisingly rich narration, suggesting the stories of Gene and his pack are treasured tales from a long, otherwise forgotten time. It's a comic where part of the joy is simply following the construction of the language, and how often do you get to say that about a comic book?

Of course, Kingdom proves to be about something bigger and sadder than the snow-covered wastes that these characters walk around, and as the scope increases to incorporate other characters, so does the opportunity for heartbreak and really powerful drama, the sort that Abnett doesn't often get to write in 2000 AD's pages. Each of the two series of Kingdom (2006-07 and 2007-08) are reprinted in this book along with some great-looking extra artwork by Elson. The third series is in production and planned to appear in 2000 AD later in the year. The book's certainly worth your time; every page is a real treat.

(Excerpted from Thrillpowered Thursday.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The World of Charles Addams

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: a review, of sorts, of The World of Charles Addams (Knopf, 1991).

I've been in a New Yorker mood for many months now. I've been slowly working my way through that mammoth Complete Cartoons book and CD-ROM collection that Marie gave me since Christmas, and I'm saving myself the treat of looking at all of the great, underrated Jack Ziegler work on the disk for when I'm finished with the book itself. But seeing some of Charles Addams's earliest material - not that there was any apparent learning curve, he arrived, fully formed, as one of America's greatest cartoonists - reminded me that I had been meaning for years to get myself a copy of this brilliant Addams coffeetable book.

It's a huge, wonderful collection and while I'm sure it could prompt any number of long dissertations about Addams and the macabre and bizarre settings of his weird, funny cartoons, I think those essays have already been written. What I can tell you is that this giant book is more than 300 pages long, with two color sections and a fascinating little biographical essay. The reproduction of all this old material is very nice, and it's a great package which should have been kept in print. That said, you should be able to find a secondhand copy for not too much money, and I recommend you do so. Also, the one about the husband snatched from his picnic by a giant bird is the funniest comic panel ever.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Battlefields: The Tankies

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 Battlefields: The Tankies # 1 (Dynamite, 2009).

Since DC finally balked at publishing his over-the-top superhero satire The Boys, Dynamite has become the de facto home of writer Garth Ennis, who's lately been paying tribute to the British war comics of his youth with a number of three-issue mini-series tackled by different artists. Since I'm a huge fan of Ennis's frequent collaborator Carlos Ezquerra, I decided to give this one a try. Sometimes their work together is pretty wonderful, sometimes it's a little unsatisfying, but the art's guaranteed to be nice. Dynamite seems to be offering each of their mini-series in two formats: three $3.50 issues or a skinny $12.99 book that collects the singles. That's a little high of a price point for something so thin, no matter how much I like the Ezquerras' artwork.

Earlier this year, Carlos's son Hector took up his pen as inker for his dad's work, starting on a completely wonderful new Strontium Dog serial in 2000 AD called "Blood Moon." The Ezquerras continue their collaboration in this story of a no-nonsense Geordie tank commander ("You name it, an' ah've baled oot o' the bastad.") who tries to get an armored division back on course to relieve infantry in France, 1944. Meanwhile, after a German POW turns a pair of scissors on a medic, orders are given to execute all surrendering jerries until further notice.

It's over-the-top and gory and foul-mouthed as you might expect, and I think it's unfortunate that Ennis chose to not rein in the shocks while scripting something much more layered and mature than the comics of his childhood. The plot itself is more adult than most of what used to appear in the pages of Battle Picture Weekly and Warlord; the grim violence simply isn't necessary. This isn't at all a bad comic, and I look forward to the next two parts, but it's markedly less interesting than his wonderful take on Battler Britton from a few years ago, which, you'll note, wasn't punctuated with decapitations and legs burned to the bone. Recommended for older readers.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Elk's Run

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 Elk's Run (Random House/Villard 2007).

A project hampered by publishing difficulties throughout its short life, Elk's Run was envisioned as an eight-issue series dealing with rising tensions in an isolated West Virginia community established by retired veterans in the 1970s. The completed project finally saw release as a graphic novel in 2007.

Joshua Hale Fialkov shows a fine flair for pacing and perspective. I enjoyed how each chapter attempts to show the community problem from different characters' POV. It's a story which, despite its real-world underpinnings, just wouldn't work very well in any other medium. It's an engaging story, with a hell of a climax. If Fialkov is guilty of anything, it's making his protagonist perhaps too sympathetic in the face of an unbelievably trenchant father and his foolish wife. Where the book really let me down, sadly, was the artwork by Noel Tuazon. I just didn't like this art at all and found it difficult to tell characters apart. Tuazon's use of color and storytelling shows that he knows what he's doing, but it's a shame he chose to work in such a disagreeable style.

Curiously, I was rereading this last week, just as the blowhards of talk radio had worked themselves into a fury over reports that the justice department was looking into connections between veterans and right-wing extremist violence. This isn't a book for them, then. Speaking purely in terms of fiction, there are some interesting similarities between this story and the Luna Brothers' tale of isolated rural horror, Girls. Perhaps if you enjoyed that, then Elk's Run might be the book for you. Tuazon's artwork prevents me from really recommending it very strongly though.

Monday, May 4, 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 Fanboy (DC, 2001).

When Fanboy, a very silly miniseries by Mark Evanier and the great artist Sergio Aragon├ęs, set in the sidelines of the DC Universe and featuring a hero-obsessed comic shop employee fighting censorship and being oblivious to the girl who loves him, was originally released in 1999, I was not interested in trying it. That's despite all the fun guest art by the likes of Russ Heath, Gil Kane, Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland and Bruce Timm illustrating various fantasies and daydreams of our hero, the geeky Finster. I plead being a boring person and not really noticing it, and not having been led back to the usual Mad Magazine gang of idiots by my son yet.

Well, three months back, we went to see the artist give a lecture and receive the Jack Davis Distinguished Artist award at UGA and popped by Bizarro Wuxtry beforehand so that my son could get something new signed beyond the older books he owns. (You did read about that, didn't you?) Bizarro had the collected edition of Fanboy along with several of Sergio's other books, so I bought a copy for my son, and he finally let me read it a couple of weeks ago.

I think the most honest way to describe this book is that it's incredibly sweet, with a relaxed pace and a desire to make readers smile. I don't believe I laughed out loud while reading it, but I spent a lunch hour with it and grinned from start to finish. There are points where the motions are not at all original - hey, Finster, guess what, the girl you're crazy about will never feel the same for you - but it's all done with such style and such a light touch that it seems fresh and different. In some ways, it feels like the inverse of Kyle Baker's fabulous Plastic Man comic from a few years back. There, Baker was bludgeoning the sacred cows of the DC Universe in a wild, over-the-top manner. Aragon├ęs and Evanier's decision to gently tease conventions results in something nowhere as raucous, but nonetheless very satisfying. Recommended for all ages.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Doctor Who: The Betrothal of Sontar

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 Doctor Who: The Betrothal of Sontar (Panini, 2008).

Panini has released a pair of 100-page magazine collections of the more recent episodes of their long-running Doctor Who strip since the series returned. In fact, Christopher Eccleston only played the Doctor long enough to make it to about 100 pages of comics, so that's all the compilation that he'll ever get, but "The Betrothal of Sontar" is the first time that one of their big, lovely graphic novels is devoted to the modern series. It contains all of the Tenth Doctor & Rose strips from Doctor Who Magazine #365-377 plus one from the 2007 Storybook, and wraps up with the first post-Rose story "The Warkeeper's Crown" from #378-380, which features the return of the Brigadier along with longtime Eighth Doctor artist Martin Geraghty.

From a creators' standpoint, it really is a mixed bag. One thing that has made the strip so enthralling over its thirty-year run have been the lengthy runs by a consistent team, whether the original Mills/Wagner/Gibbons lineup, or the Parkhouse run of the Fifth and Sixth Doctors, or the terrific Gray/Geraghty run for the Eighth Doctor. The strip was at its weakest in the early 90s when it was without a regular team. Since 2005, it's had rotating writers and artists, and sometimes there are eye-rolling duds like Tony Lee's "F.A.Q." but the approach does have advantages. By letting the TV show dictate the subplots and continuity, the strip can focus more on high-concept adventures that no TV show's budget could manage, like John Tomlinson's titular adventure and Mike Collins' reality-warping "The Futurists."

That might seem an odd distinction, but it results in a mix of stories simply too wild for any TV budget and more amusing episodes that play with the modern series' character dynamics. Best of all is a one-off written by Gareth Roberts and drawn by Mike Collins and David Roach in which the Doctor spends a TARDIS-free weekend on the Powell Estate waiting for Rose to arrive, making Mickey completely miserable. It's a really hilarious little gem. A similar story, bidding farewell to this set of supporting characters and drawn by the great Roger Langridge, is a wonderful recap of everything that both drove us nuts and made Rose, Jackie and Mickey so endearing. It's a perfect companion to the TV series, and is certainly recommended for all Doctor Who fans.