Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 17

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 Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Vol. 17 (Rebellion, 2011).

I put off purchasing this book, and writing about it, for just about as long as humanly possible, I guess. My heart sank when it showed up in my bag at Bizarro Wuxtry. For those of you who've been reading regularly, and reading between the lines, you might have gleaned that my comic book purchases have come grinding to a halt, with only the digital copies of 2000 AD surviving, and none, sadly, of the trades that I wish that I could afford. Babies and doctors cost a lot of money; I am not earning enough anymore to justify a hobby that Marie and I really don't share. And so, very sadly, after almost twenty years, I closed out my bag at America's finest comic shop. Each visit over the last several months, I cobbled the cash to get a few last things from it. The last to go was the last thing that I wanted, the umpteenth reprint of a monumentally flawed Judge Dredd epic called "Judgment Day."

In what has to be the weirdest coincidence ever, in a life just full of them -- ask me about the Randolph / Quitman / Glascock County "Where's George" incident sometime -- the very first thing that I ordered as a subscriber at Bizarro Wuxtry was 2000 AD in the summer of 1992. "Judgment Day" was running then as a new serial, alongside the fourth "phase" of Zenith and the first Button Man and, erm, Kola Kommandos. Twenty years later, I closed out my bag with the story's collection in the seventeenth volume of The Complete Case Files. It is not a story that has aged well.

"Judgment Day" takes up about half the book. It's a story that wants to be tense, but it never rises above the simplistic concept of "Judge Dredd Versus Zombies." The villain of the piece, Sabbat, is a goofy one-note bore, sort of the ultimate example of everything that was wrong about Judge Death's slide into black comedy. There's no sense of scale or escalation to Garth Ennis's script. We're just told that things are bleak, instantly, and then they're just comically overdone. Having a zombie invasion on Mega-City One's west wall sure sounds bad, but Mega-City One is something like two hundred miles across in most places, with thousands of tower blocks that stretch up hundreds of floors. I don't care how many bad guys you've got outside, it's not an invasion that's going to destroy the city overnight, no matter how many times Ennis insists otherwise.

At its worst, and this book repeatedly shows Ennis at his most simplistic, and, one can easily argue, worst, this reads like proto-Mark Millar. It's all about tough people hitting each other really hard. At one point, Chief Judge McGruder shows up with the biggest machine gun that anybody's ever drawn and shouts, if memory serves, "Eat hot drokking lead, you worthless bags of vomit!" I swear, it's possible to write to 2000 AD's core of ten year-old boys without making everybody else in the audience cringe. Not, sadly, the way that Ennis does it.

Put another way, this is the story that finally devotes an episode to having Judge Dredd and Johnny Alpha go at each other with fisticuffs. This is a story that features both characters' visual creator, Carlos Ezquerra, among several on art chores, and this key moment is drawn by... somebody else.

It's not all this dire. I like the silly "Almighty Dredd" in spite of Ian Gibson phoning in the artwork. There's a bit in the middle where a young judge tries making a gag at Dredd's expense, only to get a chin and a scowl in the face, and the wise advise from one of his fellows: "Back in the day, we called that Long Walk Talk, son. You best watch yourself." That still makes me laugh. And there's a bit that Sean Phillips illustrated, beautifully, in which the judges have a masked vigilante in custody. He and his bunch of Cursed Earth cultists have based their society on old Lone Ranger comics, and the judges let him keep his mask on. That's so silly that it works.

But these are hiccups, and not much more. The honest truth is that in 1992, Judge Dredd, as a weekly strip in 2000 AD, had been spinning wheels for a couple of years and it was at this point that it fell off a cliff. Ennis at least has some enthusiasm for the character, even if his abilities are not able to match it. Things are bad at this point, but they got a lot worse from 1993-95, when Millar, Grant Morrison, and whoever was using the "Sonny Steelgrave" pseudonym from one week to the next started crapping out stories. In the twice-monthly Judge Dredd Megazine, John Wagner was still scripting some high-quality material - the first two "Mechanismo" stories appear in Case Files 18 - but it's overwhelmed by such awful material in the weekly. Things certainly improved in '95 in a big way - anybody who doesn't think that Judge Dredd has been one of the best strips in comics for the last dozen-plus years is either ignorant or in denial - but man, the early nineties were rough.

Rebellion's issuing a lot of books that I would love to own and love to write about (Ampney Crucis! Black Hawk! Mazeworld! Psi Files 2!) and I hope that one day soon I will. I really doubt that I'll go back and get books 18, 19 and probably 20 in this series, though. Having every prog and megazine, I already have more than my fill of lousy Dredd stories, and the limp, macho grind of Book 17 is bad enough. Not even recommended for completists, frankly.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists

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 Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (Drawn & Quarterly, 2011).

Seth's latest release is another "sketchbook" story with which he tinkered for several years before finalizing it. As his earlier, similar Wimbledon Green suggested a world where the collecting of decades-old comics was a noble and bold pursuit, The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists illustrates that world. It's a place where Canada's supposed domination of the art form has led to the many and varied artists being held in the highest possible esteem, and a social club with branches in several cities and a library only accessible via a two-hour school bus ride north of the idiosyncratically-named Green Valley, somewhere up in Nunavut, I suppose.

I love the way that Seth adds layers and layers of fictions to his story, all told via a very unreliable narrator who eventually confesses that some of his tale is not entirely accurate. The story mixes in just enough real-world truth, including both a couple of namechecks for Chester Brown and about nine pages devoted to one of Seth's pet causes, a mostly-forgotten comic strip called Nipper by a guy named Doug Wright. In other words, there's just enough honesty to make the whole fundamentally dishonest narrative seem like it can be trusted. But it's not even set in a real place; Dominion is the small city seen in some of Seth's other works, notably the amazing George Sprott: 1894-1971. Naturally, a fictional city is a good place for a fictional club devoted to the (mostly) fictional art displayed here.

The tour of the club's facility leads into diversions where several key Canadian comics, both newspaper strips and funnybook pamphlets, are explored. My only quibble with The GNBCC is that the many excerpts are still drawn in Seth's simple sketchbook style. I do feel that it would have been a more entertaining and complete immersion had Seth explored some different styles for the many different comics.

That tiny issue aside, this really does work for me. I'd like to visit Dominion in the same way that millions would like to visit Hogwart's. It's that real and that engaging, and I'm always happy to follow one of Seth's little diversions there. Not bad for a town that, if we get right down to it, probably isn't all that much more impressive than Macon. Happily recommended.

Monday, February 20, 2012

2000 AD Prog 2012

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 2000 AD Prog 2012 (Rebellion, 2011).

One of the high points of any year's release calendar is 2000 AD's hundred-page end-of-the-year celebration. It's a terrific jumping-on point, with the first episodes - usually double-length - of the ongoing series that will continue on into the following year, and additional, one-off episodes of some of the other recurring favorites.

This time out, the annual edition, with a painted cover by Greg Staples showing Judge Dredd and the comic's alien editor Tharg the Mighty standing back-to-back, has the launch of Grey Area, a new science fiction thriller by Dan Abnett and Karl Richardson, along with the opening installments of both the final Nikolai Dante story by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser, and the latest Strontium Dog tale by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, about which, more in a couple of weeks.

These ongoing stories are backed up by the now-expected Sinister Dexter installment by Abnett and Anthony Williams, Dandridge by Alec Worley and Jon Davis-Hunt, Absalom by Gordon Rennie and Tiernan Trevallion, the "pilot" for the forthcoming Aquila by Rennie and Leigh Gallagher, and an incredibly clever and fun one-off Judge Dredd adventure by Al Ewing and John Higgins. Only eight stories this time out - the tendency to double-up has again crowded out some of the one-shots that fans might prefer to see - but every one is a winner.

The Dredd adventure is a genuinely intelligent surprise of a tale. It appears to be a "Choose Your Own Adventure" game, with instructions to move from panel to panel based on decisions, but there is a whole lot more to it than that. Readers have been raving about what a nuanced story it is, one that works on so many more levels to it than meets the eye. Grey Area, which feels thematically similar to that film District 9 from a couple of years ago, is off to a good start, and the lengthy, scene-setting teaser for Aquila, sort of a fresh take on the classic series Black Hawk, about an unkillable and soulless man in Roman times, left me wanting more. The series proper is thought to be debuting sometime this summer. Sin Dex is, as ever, the weakest point. The once-crucial series has been tired and coughing up blood for years, but this installment does at least have the feel of closure to at least one of the series' kajillion subplots. I'm optimistic that it's being retired for the present. Abnett's Grey Area is much, much more promising than more of this, anyway.

Everything here does what it should: the strips satisfy readers while also leaving them wanting more. In the case of Absalom, a series about an aging, very cranky detective inspector on London's occult beat, more was only a few weeks away. It began a new storyline a few issues after this one-off. Hopefully, the ghostly dandy Dandridge will be close behind. One of 2000 AD's only real problems, in my mind, is that there are just so many recurring series in the present lineup that only featuring five episodes a week leaves an awfully long gap between new stories. This is the final adventure for Nikolai Dante, whose 15-year epic saga is finally concluding, so that will free up a little room, but we've said that before when other series ended, and Tharg seems to keep launching three or four new stories for every one that wraps up.

Well, another real problem is that there wasn't an Indigo Prime one-off episode. If ever there was a series that cried out for regular one-offs, to spotlight various members of its gigantic cast, surely that's the one. But complaining what isn't in an issue is just Monday morning quarterbacking. What is in this issue is solid, entertaining as hell and, naturally, loudly recommended.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Selected Works of TS Spivet

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 Selected Works of TS Spivet (Penguin, 2009).

I really, really liked this book, but I did not quite love it. My sister-in-law gave it to me for Christmas, correctly sussing - she's quite remarkable this way - that I would be drawn to something so very unusual in structure as this.

The Selected Works of TS Spivet is about a middle school mapmaker, but he's more of a cartographer of the psychosphere around him, "mapping" things that it never occurred to anybody else to map. His gigantic library of volumes contains maps and charts of happenings and occurrences within the realm of his family's old farm in Montana. Painstakingly illustrated and copiously researched, this is not the work of an ordinary little boy, but one whose scholarly ambitions in his very narrow field blind him to the horrible impact that it has had on his family. If the slow, unfolding revelations about the death of Spivet's brother, and the child's feeling about it, don't break your heart, then you don't have one.

Copiously illustrated and annotated with examples of Spivet's maps and legends, the book itself is incredibly impressive and neat. I'm aware that there is a paperback edition available on deep discount at at least one of the larger bookstore chains, but I'd definitely shell out for the hardcover. It has a curious feel between a found object and a college textbook that I adore.

The improbable plot started losing me towards the end. As Spivet makes an unlikely journey to Washington DC to accept an award, things become so extraordinary that there really only seems to be one possible outcome to the story - think about a bridge over Owl Creek, basically - but it just keeps piling up improbable occurrences, one after another, that will leave the young man mapping for many, many years to come. It's a very curious adventure, but the emotional resonance that I was anticipating never comes. I was not entirely thrilled, but I recommend it all the same.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Angel Zero

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 Angel Zero (published in 2000 AD, Rebellion, 2011).

Since I have been known, within the past year, to point a finger and give 35 year-old boys' comic 2000 AD a tut-tutting about its lack of strong female leads, I should have the courtesy to point out that the anthology did feature something new along those lines in the last quarter of 2011. It was a thirteen-week serial called Angel Zero, written by Nigel Long, a fellow who first started offering scripts in the early '90s under his pseudonym "Kek-W" but who has been mostly absent from the comic field for years, and painted by longtime mainstay John Burns.

It's flawed, but a definite step in the right direction. The lead character is Maggie Roth, a woman who's trying to live a simple life as a welder and artisan in a sparsely-populated frontier town on some planet in the future. She's plagued by bad dreams, thanks to having a battle computer that she thought had been removed from her spine still sending out signals. The organization that she left wants her back for testing, as, while the "angel" tech has been upgraded and improved in her absence, something about how Maggie was able to escape demands further study. After a comparatively slow-paced opening episode to set the tone, this quickly becomes a very fast-paced thriller.

I was hoping for something a little less conventional from Long, who often feels like he's reining in some more remarkably wild and outre influences when he's working on material for 2000 AD. As the image above indicates, this does turn out to be a story that pits a superpowered character against a lot of heavily-armed thugs, and I was reminded of the long subplot in TV's Firefly about River Tam and the corporation - slash - government from which she was running. It all gets rushed and frantic towards the end, in part because, curiously, and worryingly, the page count is an unusually low four pages per episode. We certainly hope that doesn't become a regular fact.

There have been exceptions, but the vast majority of 2000 AD's female leads have either been spinoffs from male-led features, or members of an ensemble cast. (Agent Mariah Kiss from last year's Indigo Prime is a noteworthy example of the latter.) It was very agreeable reading something that broke the mold, and did so with panache. The climax never really rises to the promise of an incident about a third of the way through, where Maggie, desperate, goes in for some very risky surgery to make damn sure that every trace of the computer is removed, but as action melodramas go, this was satisfying and engaging, and recommended.

(The series ran in 2000 AD issues 1751-1763 last year. Clicking the image takes you to the digital download site, Clickwheel, where readers may purchase the issues individually. There is, at this time, no capacity to purchase series by-the-story.)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

My Doomed Affair # 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 My Doomed Affair # 2 (self-published, 2011).

I've always enjoyed Jacob Hunt's My Doomed Affair, a silly and very well-drawn comic strip that used to appear in the pages of Athens' weekly newspaper Flagpole. It has just enough of a mean-spirited edge to keep readers from really sympathizing with the comic version of Jacob. He's immature and thoughtless and really funny.

In the comic, which usually appeared weekly, Jacob is dating a girl named Apryl. They really don't treat each other badly; it's just that he's so much less serious about anything than she is, and she doesn't react very well at all to his teasing. Plus, she puts her feet on his car's dashboard. They clash about anything, in zings timed perfectly well for four-panel strips.

Hunt submitted four strips, reworked into a wider "Sunday" format, to syndicates without success. These are included along with a selection of the "dailies" in the second of two 32-page minicomics. I picked up my copy from Bizarro Wuxtry. You may drop that store a line by following the link above; the comics don't appear to be sold on Hunt's website. He also seems to have ended the strip, which is a shame, as it was always a highlight of Flagpole's funny page.

I love his expressive art and the characters' great big eyes, but this really was not the sort of format that could really go on forever. Even the strip's title dooms it, you know? Reading the paper on a monthly or sixth-weekly trip to Athens, even I was surprised, a couple of years into its run, that Apryl had not dumped him yet. Happily recommended.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Low Life: Paranoia

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 Low Life: Paranoia (Rebellion/Simon & Schuster, 2011).

The Low Life is one of the most dangerous slums in Judge Dredd's Mega-City One, a sprawling neighborhood the size of a massive modern-day coastal city beset by organized crime and vice. Justice Department devotes a huge undercover presence here, with several officers of the "wally squad" under deep cover. They're some of the strangest oddballs in the force, but they're all judges.

The series, which has grown into one of the most popular of the last decade, debuted in 2004. Written by Rob Williams and illustrated, initially, by Henry Flint, it focused at first on Judge Aimee Nixon, a one-armed, broken-nosed operative with a scarred psyche. Her wounds are really deep. Most wally squad judges are pretty off-kilter, but the way that Judge Nixon finds herself with nowhere to turn can often get very harrowing.

Rob Williams drew on decades of Judge Dredd backstory in designing this world, building on the wally squad's tendency towards loners and rogues doing whatever it takes to enforce the law. It's very much in line with the established continuity of the main strip and creates an exciting and engaging world of its own from the start. It doesn't always work for me, however. While the series has grown into something really captivating and amazing - appearing as about one serialized story a year, the three most recent stories from 2009-2011 are absolutely highlights of 2000 AD - these earlier adventures are good, but not quite essential.

These earlier adventures are also not served as well by this presentation as an earlier one in England. This book, Paranoia, reprints the first four and the sixth Low Life adventures, skipping a one-off, "He's Making a List..." But all six stories were collected in 2008's Mega-City Undercover, along with a different, short-lived series about a rogue wally squad judge, Andy Diggle and Jock's Lenny Zero. That was an ungainly way to compile two series when it did not seem certain that either would continue - Low Life has become better and more popular and has amassed about forty-odd more episodes, and Lenny Zero is said to be making a long-overdue return later this year - but that book is a much better value for money than this.

I hate to be one of those bores who recommends books with the caveat that the later material is better, but this needs to sell really well before Simon & Schuster elects to produce a second volume, so please buy this even though it's only pretty good and not amazing, but, well, yeah, that's the case here. Unless you've got Mega-City Undercover already, in which case this is just a duplication. So those are the reservations, if they're not too steep.