Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Indigo Prime: Everything and More

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 Indigo Prime: Everything and More (Rebellion, 2011).

Of all the deliciously high-concept series and serials that have appeared in the pages of 2000 AD, John Smith's Indigo Prime, which weaved its way in and out of its own and a few other stories from 1986-91, is just about the wildest. Briefly, it's about an organization located at the nexus point of all the countless parallel universes and is responsible for policing them from the reality-altering damage caused by things like time travel or breaking-the-laws-of-physics experiments. Basically, if the scientists of your world have split enough atoms to cause jackbooted reptilian Nazis from the Earth's core to emerge and conquer the Roman Empire, these are the guys who come and fix things. For a price.

The original run of Indigo Prime, despite one or two stories that rank among my favorites told in the medium of comics, was a mindbender of a series, with its high concepts frequently told in a deliberately obscure and challenging way. Part of the thrill was guessing what was happening one or two minutes away from the action, learning the background of the action and the relationships of the handful of characters that we met. A much, much larger cast was always hinted at, and even higher stakes suggested, but as Smith retired the concept in 1991, these were left to readers' imaginations. (I discussed the series in much greater detail over at my Thrillpowered Thursday blog a few weeks ago.)

A 2008 Smith-written serial called Dead Eyes revealed, stunningly, that agents of Indigo Prime were still at large. It's been far too long a wait, but September saw the formal return of Indigo Prime in a new four-part adventure that, as patiently as the mercurial and restless Smith can manage it, eases new readers into the incredibly weird and thunderously wild world of this bunch. This reintroduction - actually, it's the closest thing to an introduction that the series has ever seen, as they originally just sort of snuck in like infiltrators and weirded up the place - ran in 2000 AD issues 1750-1753. A second story began in issue 1756 and, at the time that I am posting this blog, is a couple of weeks into its run. Digital copies of these comics, as PDFs or CBZs, can be purchased from Clickwheel or from better comic shops.

Smith's way of easing us into things is to show us the cataclysmic destruction of one reality as a result of Science Gone Wrong. Agents Winwood and Cord, whom we met in the original run, arrive, but this time they are accompanied by a first for the series, an audience identification figure, to whom the characters can explain what the heck is going on. Unfortunately, the in-at-the-deep-end approach is not working for Indigo Prime's newest recruit, and so a gentler way is called for, courtesy of a curious old friend of the new recruit, and two agents who can manipulate dreams.

Settling the new fellow in is just one of the agency's problems. Two agents have just returned from one universe that has been decimated by a planet-killing fungus, and in a prison at the heart of a star, there's some old villain cunningly plotting his escape, and talking directly through the fourth wall to the reader. If this doesn't thrill you and leave you wanting more while simultaneously ordering you to reread every page, something's just downright wrong with you.

Smith is ably assisted by one of the best artists with whom he's ever been teamed. Edmund Bagwell, in turn, has been possessed by a spirit of Jack Kirby the likes of which all of that great artist's many acolytes have just been trying to grasp. With planetary extinctions, crazy phantasmagoria, double-page spreads of impossible technology crackling in the void between stars and a sense of bewildering excitement, Bagwell has knocked this work completely out of the park. His design sketchbook must be twelve inches thick by now.

With a mix of older characters and new ones for new readers to meet - one of whom, in a moment certain to cause double-takes, is a notorious criminal from our world - this first story is certainly busy and full of things to demand readers' attention. But, and I say this as honestly and as objectively as I can, the payoff is completely enormous. The last time that I looked so forward to seeing what would happen next in an ongoing series, it was Grant Morrison's celebrated run on DC's JLA more than a decade ago.

2000 AD's editor has been characteristically tight-lipped about what the future holds for the series, and whether we can expect far more cosmos-exploding fun in 2012 after the second story of this too-short return wraps in December, but I've got my fingers crossed. The story's title, "Everything and More," is remarkably apt. It is truly everything that I wanted from Indigo Prime's return, and a whole lot more. Highly recommended, and I hope it runs forever.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 1969

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 latest freaking League of Extraordinary Gentlemen story (Top Shelf, 2011).

Have things really become this awful? Honestly, the best that I can say about the latest, interminable, bloodless exploit of the restless and bored adventurers of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is that it's not quite as bad as I thought it was when I first read it. It did improve markedly on a second read, but I still didn't like it at all.

I was not expecting much; Kevin O'Neill, whose work stopped thrilling me at some point between Metalzoic and Marshal Law many years ago, has always had trouble hitting deadlines, but the amount of time he spends drawing these comics only for them to emerge looking so darn ugly just leaves me baffled. It's not as though he's phoning it in; the amount of detail that he packs onto the page really is amazing, but it all looks so flat and it doesn't serve any damn purpose whatsoever other than to give Jess Nevins something to annotate. There's not a point in the world in agonizing over putting caricatures of the actors who played Steptoe and Son into the crowd scenes of your pages when they don't serve the story, slow you down, and, oh, look like they've been run through the ugly machine. Well, not that those guys were winning beauty pageants in the real world, but still.

So, I was predisposed to dislike this comic because I greatly dislike Kevin O'Neill's art, which is certainly heretical in many of the quarters in which I visit, and because I'm amazed that he keeps getting a pass from a fandom for taking such an absurd time to finish the work. I know that sounds like a reverse Woody Allen complaint, but, really, when artists whose work I enjoy more could have illustrated this story in far, far less time, it really feels like a story that I (once) wanted to read is being held up by substandard art. I've given previous editions of the book a break because I was willing to overlook the art that I find unappealing in order to get to the story. Alan Moore often gets that kind of a pass, but often, lately, he's lost me. I'm not about to spend money on, to use a beacon-bright example, Lost Girls, because, while I've no objection to comic book porn, that doesn't sound like the sort of porn that I want to read, and worse, it's just about the most awful art that I have ever seen in any comic, ever, and is, by consequence, the least erotic thing imaginable. Johnny Ryan and Sam Henderson could have made a sexier comic.

But anyway, the flat reality, now that we're into the "Century" cycle of stories, is that I no longer want to read about Mina and the boys, and this art that I can't stand is just making matters worse. Mina's stiff and grouchy exterior played well as a supercilious Victorian, but what the hell is she still doing stomping around with a Victorian-era chip on her shoulder in the nearly-modern day? Socially, the world has become so much brighter and more effervescent since her time, but she's absolutely joyless when not hateful; she's given up, and her malaise infects the story. Orlando and Quatermain seem to want to move on and enjoy life, but they're stuck, loyal and subservient, for some mad reason, to her. When the climax sees Mina separated from her associates, I was left with relief. Soon, Orlando and Quartermain will be able to hang out with Jason King and have some fun for once.

It's always been amusing to watch Moore just get down in the dirt and mess with perceptions and expectations about how the great and the forgotten characters of fiction really would interact with each other. Seeing the not-James Bond-for-trademark-reasons James Bond get such a comeuppance for his vulgar chauvinism in The Black Dossier was a scream, for instance. But Moore has Adam Adamant so utterly backwards in his cameo that it drives home how unpleasant Mina has become, and how there is no longer any reason to read about her. The televsion Adamant was trapped in suspended animation from 1902 until 1966, when he was unfrozen and began solving the sort of cases that John Steed and Emma Peel would normally handle, and, much like Steed, he loved life. Swinging London confounded him for a few moments before he jumped in and took the city and the 1960s by storm. Well, as much storm as a cheap 1960s BBC videotape drama would allow.

So Moore takes a character, who, cut adrift from his stodgy old morality and culture, adapted to the 1960s with wild enthusiasm and abandon, and then lets the unpleasant and bored Mina undermine him and play him for laughs? It's long been suspected that Moore just doesn't like modern life at all, but perhaps more was revealed here in the telling of the joke than was intended. The old crank has lost me. Not recommended.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned

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 Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (Norton, 1997).

I thought that I'd try a few things by Walter Mosley. I enjoyed his Black Betty some years ago and am looking forward to rereading it, and so I picked up a pair of his many other books. Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned introduced a new character named Socrates Fortlow, who was played by Laurence Fishburne in a TV-movie adaptation of this set of short stories. Fortlow is a thoughtful but rage-filled ex-con who let his temper run away with him only once, at entirely the wrong time, and since his release, he's been eking out a tough existence in a two-room apartment in Watts.

While this is a collection of short stories, it's not a simple anthology. Each of these tales builds on the events of the previous story, and certainly reads as well as any deliberately-constructed novel. Fortlow is a fascinating character, and it's illuminating to see the directions that his wounded pride takes him. At one point, it gets him a needed job, but it also gets him in confrontations that really should have been avoided.

This was a very unpredictable and satisfying read, with moments where it gets really sad and touching. I think this goes a long way towards cementing Mosley's status as one of the most important authors of the last twenty years. Recommended.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

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 Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (Pyr, 2010).

It's curious that I should now be writing about this book just after my best mate Dave linked to an article where SF author Neal Stephenson called for an end to all this backwards-looking steampunk SF and a return to actually writing books about the future. Dave's never had any time for or interest in steampunk. Neither have I, for that matter, but one must admit that some of those cosplayers dress pretty well.

At any rate, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is the first in a series of novels - the third is due to be published in the spring - featuring two adventurers in an alternate timeline where Queen Victoria was assassinated early in her reign by a time-traveling lunatic. Time has gone off the rails, eugenics has taken hold, very quickly, and phantasmagorical science has led the empire into a technological revolution at the cost of an even greater underclass of poverty than our world had in the 1890s. It's a very fun read, if you're willing to really, really suspend some serious disbelief, and it sparked some interesting questions about how time travel works in this world.

It is, however, quite painfully flawed in places. It is the debut novel from Mark Hodder, and there are bits where it's painfully apparent that he's a novice with this. At one point, our hero meets with a police inspector who was just a rookie on patrol the day that the Queen was shot, and who saw the bizarre apparition of Spring-Heeled Jack in the area. This sequence was just painful to read, as the inspector relates events to Sir Richard Francis Burton that Burton assuredly already knows, in an awkward and fumbling way to get this information to the reader. There's a lot of this in the book, with weird inventions and the results of odd experiments launching alternate London into its bold future, and the book repeatedly stops to explain what the heck some gadget or messaging service does.

I enjoyed considering the ramifications of the rules of time travel that Hodder employs. Apparently, you only get one shot at altering time, and once you're done, you can't change it again. You certainly can't change it back, but everything else that the hapless villain of the piece tries has already been done, and he just learns about it too late. I wonder why. It certainly sparked an entertaining discussion about all the "time-wimey stuff," as Doctor Who terms it, with my wife, who brought the book home from the newspaper after it made its way to an employee sale. She was less taken with it than I was, though I confess I was more taken with the book's promise, and the curious questions that it raised, than by the nuts and bolts of the world that Hodder created. It seems that somebody went to an awful lot of unbelievable trouble in genetics and breeding to create the far-out messenger bird communication when just letting Alexander Graham Bell have his run of things would have been a whole lot simpler. Recommended with reservations.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Bendatti Vendetta

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 Bendatti Vendetta (Rebellion, 2011).

I must admit that I was very surprised to see a complete collected edition of The Bendatti Vendetta, a series that first appeared in the pages of Judge Dredd Megazine about a decade ago. It's not very long - 12 episodes, comprising three stories, over just 96 pages - but with its creators, Robbie Morrison and John Burns, quite popular from their work on other properties, notably Nikolai Dante, a collection has a hook upon which to hang a little publicity.

While many of Morrison's scripts emphasize character, this is a neat exercise in going plot-first and seeing whether readers will wish to follow. The first episode has all the appearance of the most exciting pre-credits sequences of any action film from the seventies. We don't know who the characters are, but some people have slipped into some mob boss's party and caused almighty havoc, with fisticuffs and bullets flying every which way.

I say this is perfectly suited for John Burns because I perceive him, rightly or wrongly, as an artist most comfortable in the modern age. No matter how well he paints the adventures of Judge Dredd or Nikolai Dante, something about his work on those strips never completely gels for me, particularly in conveying a sense of place. His Mega-City One is rarely more than dark alleyways, and his future Russia is often just bombed-out war zones. But The Bendatti Vendetta is clearly set in the humdrum of our world, and when Burns brings this to life, it's vastly more vivid and exciting. Well, it's less our world than our recent history - it doesn't appear that Burns has updated his reference material in many years, but since the violent iconography within the script screams "seventies action film," it doesn't matter, he's still exactly right for the artwork. Put another way, I keep expecting Ian Hendry and Britt Ekland to make supporting appearances.

We never learn very much about them, despite scenes and sequences set in their headquarters, but the Bendatti are sort of a reverse Mafia, handling personal cases of vengeance and retribution. Each of the stories is incredibly satisfying, but despite the inclusion of the full series, it still feels incomplete, like these tales were setting up something involved and intricate that never came. Or perhaps it just hasn't come yet. Who knows, maybe with Nikolai Dante coming to an end in early 2012, there will be a chance for Morrison and Burns to return to this and give it the teeth it seemed like it really wanted to show. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders

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 Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders (Penguin, 2005).

Sometimes, I find myself really disliking Law & Order because Sam Waterston's character is so insufferably smug and perfect, and sometimes because the defense attorneys hired, fruitlessly, by the clearly guilty criminals on that show are just a bunch of shysters and thugs, weasels every bit as crooked as the men on trial. The police never make errors on that show, except for the occasional errors in procedure which could possibly put a monster back on the street to kill again.

So it's honestly a little refreshing to have John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey stand up to defend people who were on the receiving end of police incompetence or corruption. It is coincidental that I'm writing the first draft of these paragraphs two days after Georgia executed Troy Davis, but it would, occasionally, be nice to see that before a man's life is ended, somebody would stand up for him and point out, as in Davis's case, that the majority of the witness statements were obtained by pressure. I don't think anything of cop killers, but I also don't think anything of suppressing the concept of reasonable doubt.

Throughout the Rumpole television and radio series, and into the print adaptations and later short stories for prose, Horace Rumpole would constantly refer to his first, and greatest triumph, defending something ominously called The Penge Bungalow Murders. This is such a wonderful concept, to have the man borne aloft by the nostalgia of something that, thirty-plus years later, the newer, junior members of his chambers only know because the fat, grouchy cigar smoker won't shut up about them. Before the actual details were lost to time, Rumpole elected to finally give the gruesome facts in a short novel. It is a treat, and far better than the disappointing adaptations and subsequent short stories that disappointed me so much.

In Rumpole's world, the Penge Bungalow Murders really were a cause celebre at the time. Two RAF veterans were killed, and the estranged son of one, who foolishly threatened his drunk father with a revolver earlier in the evening, is charged. In a nation only a few years past World War Two, venerating its veterans and hanging every murderer, it looks really bad for the young man. Rumpole, then just a junior barrister in training, is the only man who wants to listen to the boy's claim of innocence. The lead barrister is more concerned with not causing a fuss and aggravating the judge assigned to the case. Scheduling circumstances leave Rumpole in court alone on the second day of the trial, and he goes against his lead's instructions and gives a withering, impulsive cross-examination to a witness. The accused, finally seeing that somebody wants to believe him, dismisses his counsel and asks Rumpole to defend him, alone. If you can put the book down for an evening after that development, something's just wrong with you. I punched the air. Mortimer builds up this moment so well that it's no wonder the character spent the next three decades bragging about it. You would, too.

At the same time, a young woman named Hilda, daughter of his chambers' head, decides to take an interest in this scruffy young firebrand, seeing a promise in him that nobody else does. Hilda's motives are a little delicious, and it's just as satisfying to watch how She Who Must Be Obeyed started out. But what I really like here is how some of the material about the Rumpole household is left for the reader to infer. Hilda had high hopes and aspirations, and Rumpole never really came through for her on that point, did he? His win in this case was so much more important to him than networking and getting fatcats and aristocrats out of trouble.

Rumpole wanted to be the voice of the unjustly accused and the railroaded, and the high life was never his goal. A life of doing the right thing, and protecting the rights of the innocent, was to be his, with the occasional glass of Pommeroy's Plonk. I really don't believe that his creator and writer ever did him quite the justice in print that he did on television, but man alive, in this novel, he came through for Rumpole. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Coffee and Beer Money

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 Coffee and Beer Money (French Toast Comix, 2011).

Becky Hawkins was kind enough to let me know about her fun little journal and autobiography comics, which she publishes online and sells at conventions under the banner "French Toast Comix." Honestly, they're a little outside my present interests, but in Coffee and Beer Money, her latest 24-page mini-comic, she tells some pretty funny stories.

I think that the seeds are here for better, more assured work down the road. There are some undeniably funny episodes - an uncle shrewdly observing that she's doomed her self-caricature to the role of unromantic lead, a passerby misinterpreting her criticism of quad bikes and their turning power - but they lack context, in longer stories where the punch lines might mean a little more. I love Hawkins' sense of timing. Both the page where she gets yelled at about the bike and the first page of the longer story about her accident upon one of them feel very Pete Bagge to me, and I can't make a more complimentary comparison, but Bagge would include these hilarious moments as beats within a longer story, with less omniscent narration and more dialogue between established characters, and the moments would be even more memorable. There would also be less waste of negative space. The quick story about the uncle is a simple, two-panel observation, crying out for more context and more information.

I like her character designs, but her inking is sporadically rushed and blotchy. One page, regarding high school girls dressing trampy at cons, is particularly troubled by this. I understand the desire to use the medium as a journal, but when this results in work as uneven as that can be, perhaps the art should be redrawn before publication.

Still, when Hawkins nails it - a one-page story about the best-laid plans of putting on a good table at a con falling apart before the weekend wraps, a longer, hilarious story about an ex who phones with an aggravating new job - it's very good work indeed. She doesn't completely succeed all of the time, but when she does, it is great, and the misfires at least suggest better material could be drawn from it. There's enough to enjoy and consider to certainly make this worth the price. Recommended.

A PDF of this comic was provided by the author for the purpose of review.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Zatanna: Everyday Magic

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 Zatanna: Everyday Magic (DC, 2003).

So I was talking the other day about Paul Dini's Madame Masque. Coincidentally, I pulled out an old DC project of his from the many boxes of comics that I no longer want, to give them one more airing before moving them along.

They don't seem to publish them very often anymore, but DC used to release these longer-than-usual comics, 48 pages in this case, under a heavier card cover and a spine binding. They're called "prestige format." There isn't anything prestigious about the story. It's an uninvolving entry from the publisher's Vertigo imprint with art by Rick Mays, an artist with whom I'm not familiar.

It's really in-one-eye and out-the-other stuff. Zatanna, a stage magician and superhero, is shown to be playfully promiscuous in a way that superhero ladies usually aren't. An old boyfriend, the popular character John Constantine, shows up for help removing a hex, leading Zatanna into conflict with another sorceress. It's all really unimaginative; drawn without the occasional bare butts, then the comic could have been an all-ages book published by DC's regular imprint.

I'm not sure why I bought it at all. Maybe Brian Bolland's cover swayed me, or maybe I was, then, hopeful of a regular Dini-scripted Zatanna series from Vertigo? I don't remember. Based on the evidence, this might have made an acceptable $3 comic, but not $6, and certainly not the $30 and up that some Amazon sellers want for their copies. Not recommended.