Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Strontium Dog: Blood Moon

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Strontium Dog: Blood Moon (Rebellion, 2010)

Since the great Strontium Dog returned to the pages of 2000 AD, its creators, John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, have been telling stories set at various points in Johnny Alpha's history. Their hero has been a bounty hunter since the end of the war for mutant rights, but in these two stories, set very early in his career, he's better known as a war hero than as a licensed agent for the Search/Destroy Agency.

"Blood Moon" and "The Mork Whisperer," originally serialized last year, shows Johnny working with more of the original gang of Doghouse regulars, including several not seen in the comic for about twenty years. They're set before he met his regular partner, the Viking Wulf Sternhammer, and when not only were all three of the nasty Stix brothers alive, but a cousin of theirs was causing trouble, too.

I believe that "Blood Moon" was the first comic art that Ezquerra finished with the the assistance of his son Hector on inks. They've been working as a team for eighteen months now on this series, Judge Dredd and one of the Battlefields miniseries for Dynamite, and the style's naturally a little different, but never jarringly so. Ezquerra remains one of the best artists in the business, regardless of who's inking him, and his designs for the oddball cast of mutants remains consistently entertaining and silly.

The vibrant, fun art effectively counterpoints a couple of downright grim adventures. "Blood Moon" sees a former colonel in the mutant army still able to inspire beyond the grave, and an interplanetary terrorist campaign waged against norms in his name. In "The Mork Whisperer," one of the galaxy's richest men hires Alpha to track down his estranged wife and mutant sons, but doesn't trust Alpha enough to do the job without surveillance. The former is certainly the more dramatic and action-packed of the two, but I quite like the cerebral pace of the second, and the way Alpha uses logic, ratiocenation and a little time travel to solve a complex mystery that involves android duplicates and mind control.

Honestly, singling out any Strontium Dog book is pretty tough. It's been one of my favorite series, consistently entertaining and very clever, for years. Wagner and the Ezquerras are currently working on a new story set after the reported death of Alpha in the 1990 epic "Final Solution." Two episodes in and it's so darn riveting I can't think straight. I'd highly recommend picking up this book, and then settling in with some digital copies of June's 2000 ADs so you can see where the creators are going next.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Legion of Super-Heroes # 1-2

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Legion of Super-Heroes # 1-2 (DC, 2010)

I'm not sure which famous quote to use to express how I feel about buying a new Legion of Super-Heroes comic again after so long. Something about just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in? Or how I just can't quit you? I know, it's an exhausted Daffy Duck, beaten down from constant delays and aggravations, saying "Okay, let's get this picture started!"

This isn't a situation that I can explain very briefly, but in the 1980s, as written by Paul Levitz, DC's Legion comic was a firm favorite, and I think it's still easily among the best American books of that decade. Levitz left in 1989 for a desk job at DC, and dozens of other writers have tinkered and tampered with the continuity of the SF adventure with no lasting appeal. Levitz, at last, has returned to the title, and I've very gladly placed a regular order for it again.

Levitz is apparently now working in a melange of previous Legion continuities, with characters from at least two prior iterations of the title. Even though these are issues #1-2, they follow up a couple of stories written by Geoff Johns in other books that establish this new status quo, leaving it to Levitz to iron out the kinks and ease readers into the new storyline. As with the best Legion stories, there's a hell of a lot going on with a hell of a lot of characters. There are three big plots at work here, but Levitz is an old master at managing stories this complex for new readers and making it seem fresh and welcoming.

Honestly, the result was not completely satisfying, but I was still pleased by the first issue and occasionally thrilled by the second. Perhaps after reading too many modern American comics, I'd forgotten how nice it feels to read a newly published story that's not afraid to use forgotten standbys like thought balloons (of a sort) and captions and proper chunks of dialogue where characters actually refer to each other by name so that the audience knows who the heck is who. I just finished reading a clutch of Brian Bendis comics for Marvel, about which more soon, and the new LSH might feel a little out of touch with modern convention, but also welcoming and genuinely fresh. Too many contemporary comics try to act like film storyboards and are afraid to use the medium's conventions to tell their tales, but Levitz does it right, and does it very well.

At any rate, while the first issue did feel just a little clunky, the second really ramped things up. There's rampant, alien-hating xenophobia on 31st-Century Earth, and the arrival of thousands of refugees from the destroyed moon of Titan has made matters worse, as has Earthgov's insistence that an alien-hating former enemy of the Legion's be given a place among their ranks if they want to continue operating on the planet. Meanwhile, the Titan-born villain Saturn Queen has taken over Ultra Boy's mind and used him as a weapon against the other Legionnaires. It's an expertly-managed blend of crazy politics and high-concept SF with the focus on team relationships and dynamics that fans love. As ever, Jo is totally Tinya's sub, although I was surprised that in this iteration, Mon-El and Shady have recently split. Don't break our hearts too much, Levitz!

Artist Yildiray Cinar's work is new to me, and it's not bad at all, but I can't swear that I was really inspired by it. It's certainly competent - at no point was I confused by the storytelling or baffled as to who any of the supporting characters were, which seems to have been a huge problem for DC lately - and it's at least as good as Steve Lightle's work in the mid-80s. I do hope Cinar can turn up the weirdness dial a little further in upcoming issues. Despite the property's quaint and charming origins and zero-thought 1950s visual design, the Legion's world is most appealing to me when it's light-years away from traditional superheroics. I'd like to see Gates, for instance, look more like a weird, freaky insect and less like a safe funny animal, for starters. In the meantime, is there any chance DC can book Amanda Conner for fill-ins to sub for Cinar once a year or so?

I think that Legion fans have been badly treated by the company for a really long time now, with storylines abandoned and reset to suit the whims of new creators, and a management that just seems out of touch and clueless. In a world of year-long commitments and creators who either jump ship or get pushed far too early and often, it might be foolhardy to be placing any trust in the new LSH at all. We've been burned so frequently that many fans, myself included, just stopped reading. In a perfect world, a Levitz-helmed LSH would run for years and years, and if an optimistic, perfect world isn't the dream behind the property, I don't know what is. Fingers firmly crossed, I can't wholeheartedly recommend this as an ongoing concern, knowing how we've been shafted in the past, but I'll keep reading with a nice smile and let you know how it's going.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Creeper

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Creeper (DC, 2010)

Of all the periods of DC's history, I'm most fascinated by the late sixties. For a couple of years, the stodgy company, losing market share and the hearts and minds of a generation of readers to Marvel, finally woke up and reacted, giving creators like Joe Orlando, Steve Ditko, Bob Oskner, Nick Cardy and Sergio Aragones the opportunity to create some original ideas. There were some terrific comics published during this time, but few of them hit their appointed sales targets quickly enough. Few lasted as long as their ninth issue.

Beware the Creeper didn't even make seven. DC published six issues between 1968-69, preceded by a one-off episode in the anthology Showcase introducing the character. This was a terrific book, crackling with originality and a great supporting cast. If you can get past the really implausible, goofball origin of the character - it has to do with a sci-fi gadget hidden in the body of TV network troubleshooter Jack Ryder - this was a very fun adventure book, written and illustrated by Steve Ditko. It's a masterclass in how to tell good stories using the medium, and darn near as good a book as his earlier Spider-Man and Dr. Strange adventures for Marvel. Its cancellation was incredibly short-sighted of DC, but then again, I say that about several of their books from the period.

After the book was axed, DC began using Ditko's character as part of their larger superhero universe, as they do, slotting him into occasional team-ups with Batman and the Justice League. About five years later, Ditko got the chance to do another installment in their First Issue Special series, but it didn't lead to a revival. Neither did a 1978 outing for Showcase; the book was canceled before the episode ran, but it did lead to a new series of eight-page episodes in another anthology, World's Finest. These episodes are considerably more playful and lighthearted than the original run; there is a recurring gag with one fellow's cigar smoke invariably tracking down a co-worker's nose.

DC's new collection includes every one of Ditko's Creeper stories, including the never-previously published episode for Showcase. Well, it was published, in a way, in a frequently-pirated in-house trademark-protection mimeograph edition, but this is the first time that most people have seen it. It's a great book, and I like everything about it. The whole package, from the restored color to the paper selection to the design, is extremely well executed, and really makes these comics shine. Very highly recommended, DC, now do Ditko's Shade the Changing Man next!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Indiana Jones Omnibus: The Further Adventures volume three

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Indiana Jones Omnibus: The Further Adventures volume three (Dark Horse, 2010)

We should clear up one fact right off the bat: I probably like Indiana Jones more than you do. A lot more. Other than Shia LeBouef, I don't know exactly what anybody's problem with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was, so if you're one of those boring people who think the character should have been retired after Raiders, you're not going to enjoy this book as much as me.

Dark Horse has completed a full reprint of Marvel's old Further Adventures of Indiana Jones comic, which ran for about three years in the '80s and, when I was in the seventh and eighth grade, was among my favorite Marvel Comics. One or two of my friends harbored some snobbiness about it back then. Real Marvel Comics were the ones with superheroes; this was just some licensed property. Of course, since it was licensed, it was Marvel's to lose, and happily, Dark Horse snapped it up for their fine Omnibus series, each of which collects a couple of dozen issues in a slightly smaller size for about $25.

These are pretty good comics. I remember loving one of the cliffhangers as a kid, one that sees Indy staked out to be drawn and quartered. That moment holds up really well, as do most of the contents. They tend towards mid-80s overwordiness, of course, but Linda Grant, who scripted all but two of the episodes reprinted here, did a very good job using the format well. David Michelinie, who scripted most of the episodes in the second collection, handled those.

Online information about the writer is disagreeably sparse, but it looks like Grant did a lot of work for Marvel's licensed properties in the '80s, and edited some of their superhero books. Because she's not afraid to use either dense caption boxes or lots of speech balloons, she's able to pack a lot of information into the stories. It would take a modern Marvel writer close to 100 issues to get across all the action in these 25.

Most of the artwork is by Steve Ditko, and while it would be fair to say that this is a long way from his best and wildest work, it is still incredibly nice to look at. I really like the way that he lays out the action. The book is incredibly well paced, even if one or two of the stories have no choice but to rush to a conclusion, and just full of ancient prophecies, arcane dealings, double-crossings and Nazi adversaries. I'd happily recommend it, but then again, I liked Temple of Doom.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Batman and Son

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Batman and Son (DC, 2009)

Ouch, my achin' eyes, what an ugly book this is! I don't know what on earth is going on with Grant Morrison's career, but it seems that for every page of his comics drawn by a really talented professional, readers have to suffer through four drawn by somebody who's more interested in obscuring Morrison's intent behind horrible storytelling, a total misunderstanding of human anatomy and a latent desire to simply miss the point of what he should be drawing.

Morrison started his run on DC's Batman in 2007 and this is the first of four collected editions of the still-ongoing story. Reports from people who are reading it as it's released suggest that the current episodes - to be reprinted in, I suppose, the fifth and sixth books - have hit that wonderful Morrison payoff where elements from much earlier in the story are shown to be delicately tied together. Nobody in comics does this as well as Morrison. He hides things in plain sight and foreshadows so well and so casually that I'm genuinely curious to see what might be going on, but, honestly, it can probably wait if the artwork is anywhere as awful as this.

The story begins with the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker, being critically wounded by a rogue cop dressed as Batman. After a detour dealing with two old enemies, one of whom knows his secret identity of Bruce Wayne and can attack him in public, Batman begins to discover there's a secret order among these rogue police, using his identity for a purpose to be explored down the line. Along the way, he has to deal with his thirteen year-old son, a murderous brat raised by a gang of international criminals and cultists.

DC's reprint division has done their usual half-baked job on a contemporary property. It's a shame the way that company can make archival reprints shine with usually sensible decisions about what to collect and a strong sense of design; I'll be writing about their recent Creeper collection soon, and that great book proves that somebody in that company has their head firmly in place. But when they reprint modern comics, they just throw a random number of issues between two covers and assemble it with no thought as to how anybody's supposed to follow it or even know that the story continues into subsequent editions. There's literally nothing in here to tell readers that the story of the doppelganger Batmen and the other subplots should find some payoff in the books "The Black Glove" and "Batman RIP." It's a book, idiotically, that assumes anybody who wants to read it has Wikipedia open in another tab.

I confess that certain message boards that I enjoy have roared their disapproval of the artwork in these subsequent books, but honestly I'm having trouble imagining any art worse than that contributed by Andy Kubert in this volume. It's not merely that the characters are drawn to look unpleasantly angular and ugly everywhere, it's that the whole book is rendered in such a stylized way that there's no sense of place or scale anywhere, making sequences incredibly difficult to follow. Early in the book there's a fight in a museum's pop art exhibit, which sees people slugging it out in front of panels reading POW! and WHAM!, surely a sequence that cries out for artwork in the style of sixties artists like Carmine Infantino or Murphy Anderson, and not this sub-Jim Lee material, all pouches and constipation faces. Some years ago, Morrison scripted a one-off comic called Doom Force which specifically parodied this style of artwork and now the art on his mainstream work looks like the parody.

Part of me wants to embrace this book, because there are enough wild Morrison ideas inside it to occasionally overcome the book's major deficiencies. I'm certainly curious where the story will go next, but I've been a fan of the writer since Zenith in 1987 and I've overlooked a lot of terrible artwork in that time. When you spend even a second listing the names of previous Batman artists who could have made these comics shine, I believe that's a large enough suspension of belief violation to curb any interest in these books. Absent the employment of a Jim Aparo clone to redraw a second edition, not at all recommended.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book (Penguin, 2001 and 2003).

I just wish I could write as well as Jasper Fforde. But then, I'd be certain to write markedly different books, ideally ones not quite so weighed down with dystopian bureaucracy. For much of the last decade, he's been carving a place for himself with his lovingly lit-geek Thursday Next series, and I've been tackling these with one side of my face smiling and the other wincing.

After a successful "pilot," as it were, which is pretty much self-contained, the subsequent books seem to form chapters of the overall story. I'm reading the third, The Well of Lost Plots, now. They concern a career detective in her mid-thirties who works in an incredibly weird world. It's an alternate England that went off the rails sometime back in the early 20th Century, where George Formby was the beloved president who led Great Britain out of the dark days of the war, and where travel across the planet is done via giant tubes through the planet's core. Thursday Next starts out as an operative investigating literary thefts, plagiarism and the forgery of missing manuscripts, but her job takes her in wild directions after she matches wits with the supercriminal Hades and gets a message from her future self, traveling back in time a few weeks driving an incredibly cool car.

As the story and series continue and the boundaries between the "real" world and fiction become tangled, Next finds herself doing an apprenticeship with Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, a lost Shakespeare play turns up just in time for a corrupt politician to take advantage of it, Next's beloved uncle retires to become a supporting character in the Sherlock Holmes stories and Next, receiving psychic communications via footnotes, is put on trial for changing the ending to a beloved work of fiction. It's a bizarre, often funny series which does a remarkable job of world-building by slowly introducing a staggering array of details about Next's universe. Dodos, neanderthals and Cheshire cats all impact the story in strange and unusual ways, and, more than just the undergraduate glee in the way Fforde appropriates literary classics, it's a treat watching him slowly assemble them into a solid and intriguing backstory.

And yet I can't fully embrace the world that Fforde has created. In places it's just too bleak, but the principal problem in the first novel is that the villain is too powerful. That's perhaps a bizarre complaint, but then again he's a bizarre character, possessed of powers utterly unlike anybody else in the narrative, and without explanation of how he can pull the stunts he does. It jars as badly as a scene would in something by Chandler where somebody starts shooting at Marlowe with heat vision.

The second story, the brilliantly-titled Lost in a Good Book, ramps everything about The Eyre Affair to twelve. Members of the Hades family have even more incredibly bizarre powers, the literary allusions and puns sparkle across every page, but, most awfully, we learn more about some villains called the Goliath Corporation. Some of the events in this book surrounding Goliath are depressingly bleak, and the tone changes from playfully dramatic to genuinely unpleasant.

Overall, I've been trying to figure out my principal objection to the books - an objection, I must stress, that I'm enjoying overcoming in places - and I think it has to do with the world itself. Most good fiction creates a world that readers find fascinating in some way. But the rule-mad, bureaucracy-obsessed world of the SpecOps and Goliath is pretty far from fascinating, except in an object lesson in how not to run a system. Put another way, there's a scene in the second book that's set in the pages of Kafka's The Trial. Now there's a world that absolutely nobody would ever want to embrace or visit, yet when Next gets an unbelievably poor performance evaluation for no sensible reason whatsoever, readers would be hard pressed to tell where Kafka's world stopped and Fforde's started.

I've got my reservations about the books, but I'm smiling enough to keep working through them, even though it's a chore sometimes. Recommended, with reservations, for fans of Douglas Adams or JK Rowling.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Robo-Hunter: The Droid Files Volume One

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Robo-Hunter: The Droid Files Volume One (Rebellion, 2009)

Rereading Robo-Hunter, as I do every other year or so, is always one of my favorite pastimes. It's a pity that the character of Sam Slade remains so stubbornly unknown to audiences, particularly in this country, because it genuinely is one of the best and funniest comics ever made.

The series debuted in 1978 in the pages of 2000 AD, and for the first several weeks, appeared to be an off-kilter blend of a private eye series with a science fiction trapping. But slowly, pieces were added to the plot that showed that the world Sam Slade would be investigating was bent at very, very odd angles indeed. Before the saga of his introductory serial "Verdus" concluded, your old pal Sam would be pushed to his limit by a cast of nutball robots who twisted the plot in unexpected and bizarre directions. You remember that Tex Avery cartoon, "The Cat That Hated People," where the cat goes to the moon only to find it populated by sentient bicycle horns and pencil sharpeners? Stick somebody who wants to be a hard-boiled PI in the middle of that, and let the sparks fly.

There are certainly readers who believe that "Verdus" was as good as Robo-Hunter got, but I'm of the school that thinks when he returned to Earth, the strip got even wilder. John Wagner, who, after the second serial, took on Alan Grant as co-writer, crafted a remarkably fun ride where the stakes get higher and the whole shebang escalates into a teeter-totter catastrophe. Every story is just a masterclass in high comedy, beautifully illustrated by Ian Gibson.

Sam himself is a terrific character, a blue-collar joe who just cannot catch a break and is saddled with two fantastic sidekicks. Hoagy is this oddball frog-looking thing who reasons that he can't become a robo-hunter assistant without putting an ad in the paper for one, so he places an ad announcing that Sam has an opening, and then comes to fill it, and Sam can't get rid of him. Carlos Sanchez Robo-Stogie is a Cuban "ceegar" designed to wean people off smoking by reducing nicotine intake, gifted to Sam by Hoagy's "parents" because they don't want Hoagy picking up any bad influences.

Hoagy and Stogie are somewhere between Kramer from Seinfeld and those three dimwits from Newhart, with Sam the straight man trying desperately to keep events from spiraling any further out of control while trying to keep these good-natured incompetents from making matters worse. There's a beautiful bit in the fourth story where Sam sends Hoagy to infiltrate a robot cult, only to have Hoagy refuse to give him any information. After all, the religion is sworn to secrecy and Hoagy could never betray his brothers' trust.

Rebellion has packaged the first five Robo-Hunter storylines in a nice, phonebook-sized omnibus called The Droid Files, adding a later, one-off episode by Grant and Gibson that first appeared in a 2000 AD Annual. The reproduction is nice, the volume is very well designed, and you get a great big chunk of really excellent comics in one thick package. The second book is also out, though I'm not finished rereading it. I'll come back to it in a couple of months' time; until then, just consider this book very highly recommended and give your bookshelf the pleasure of its company.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Simpsons Comics # 163

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Simpsons Comics # 163 (Bongo, 2010)

You know, every so often, I see a little bit of The Simpsons on TV. I remain completely baffled why millions continue to watch it instead of buying these much, much better funnybooks. That's not to say most of these comics are all that amazing, but compared to how mediocre the TV cartoon has become, they really do shine.

Usually, I just read my son's copy, grin a little and pass it on, but when Sergio Aragon├ęs has some work in the comic, it's time to settle back and get ready for something tremendously silly and entertaining. For pages absolutely packed full of characters and sight gags, exploding with energy and chaos, there's nobody in Sergio's class.

The plot, and, perhaps surprisingly, something as frenetic as this has one, has to do with the town of Springfield suffering one panic after another thanks to an escalating series of crises at the nuclear plant. Seems that somebody's been sleeping at the job, resulting in one world-ending alarm after another. By the time it's finished, Kent Brockman's ratings have skyrocketed, Moe's beer taps have run dry and Hans Moleman has found a little love, and all three find themselves, bafflingly, in Homer's debt. If you honestly think there's been a better installment of The Simpsons since September, 1997, you're just flat out wrong. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Captain Freedom

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Captain Freedom (Harper, 2009).

Sorry for vanishing on everybody like that; I ran into what can best be described as a case of writer's block trying to find some way to recommend a Strontium Dog collection without repeating myself and decided a two-week break would do me good. Hopefully I can stave off the eventual burnout a little longer now, yeah?

Well, before I cooled my heels and went canoeing, I did read several books which have stacked up waiting for me. G. Xavier Robillard's Captain Freedom made its way to me via a book sale held by a major metropolitan newspaper of my acquaintance. Robillard is a regular contributor at McSweeney's and this is his first novel, a dry, witty, present-tense memoir of life among the superhero set, looking for love, meaning and celebrity wherever it can be found.

Despite what the cover artwork and some of the PR might say, this is not a superhero parody, it's a parody of celebrity culture which just uses superhero tropes to make its point. It's quite witty, and I smiled throughout, though I only laughed out loud a couple of times. Robillard did a great job creating a world with strong internal logic, where heroes sell the rights to their exploits to various competing comic book companies and have annual awards banquets and call in life coaches to make some sense of their inner struggles, depicted here as the searches for arch-enemies and origins.

I found this incredibly clever and often funny, and I like the way he uses the cliches of four-color funnybooks to skewer Hollywood. My heart sank a bit when I saw that cover - was the designer intentionally targeting the lowest common denominator? - but the text inside is far better than what you might think. Recommended.