Thursday, March 29, 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 Mazeworld (Rebellion, 2011).

In late 2009, a fan campaign started up on Facebook to convince the publisher Rebellion - or somebody, anybody - to reprint a fantasy comic called Mazeworld. I remain impressed and not a little envious that they were so successful; I spent ages and ages suggesting title after title for reprint with a darn low victory rate, and these guys did it right out of the gate.

Rebellion would be the natural home for a Mazeworld reprint, but there was a small extra step to take. The series originally appeared in the late 1990s in the pages of 2000 AD, but the copyright is owned by its creators Alan Grant and Arthur Ranson, and the rights to it did not automatically pass to Rebellion when that company bought 2000 AD from Egmont in 2000. Fortunately, Grant and Ranson were willing to work with Rebellion, who, last year, released a fine collection of their story in their excellent line of paperback graphic novels.

The story opens with Adam Cadman, a condemned prisoner - the first man to be sentenced to execution by hanging in Britain in thirty years - hooded and noosed. The lever is thrown, the floor opens and he is suddenly in a very weird fantasy world, full of labyrinths, swordsmen, rebels and demons. Stranger still, neither his hood nor his noose can be removed.

I like Alan Grant a lot, but while the structure of the story is fascinating, this is nowhere close to his finest script. Many of the characters speak in deeply awkward tough guy talk straight out of the fantasy trope machine. It's aggravating when the really good plot stumbles over the dialogue like we see here, because this is an otherwise entertaining and exciting story. Cadman is an interesting character, somebody who does not want to get involved and will throw anybody into trouble to stay out of it himself. Somehow, Grant is able to find some redemption and heroics in this guy, as the strange situation gets weirder and weirder.

But it is with Ranson's artwork that this story really excels. Like most of Ranson's work, it is occasionally stiff, and there are one or two places where the lightbox and the photoreferencing overwhelms the motion of the characters. However, these are just part of Ranson's style, and despite the very slow pace of the first three or four pages, things loosen up remarkably. Ranson draws the absolute bejesus out of this world, with a level of detail and intensity that's just about unmatched in comics this side of Tezuka. The Mazeworld has structure and feels lived-in and incredibly real. In lesser hands, elements like a collapsing scaffolding would just disintegrate into simple lines of ink. Here, Ranson makes it feel like about a ton of wood really did fall down and knock a company of guards into the dirt.

Mazeworld's flaws are noticeable, but they're very minor. The reproduction is as solid as any reader should expect from Rebellion's terrific line of graphic novels, although I'd offer an additional quibble that the introductory essays provided by Grant and Ranson give away some critical plot points, and should have been printed as afterwords. Oh, and the design of the spine doesn't quite match the rest of the line, a point of contention for 2000 AD fandom for ages now. If you can stomach that level of nitpicky belly-aching and you have a taste for fantasy fiction, then this comes recommended.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

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 Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Feiwel & Friends, 2011).

I have a crippling bias against fantasy fiction. Whenever I have attempted to read anything of the genre, I am stymied by the realities that a) I don't seem to enjoy any fiction, even the novels by I-should-love-her Ellis Peters, that is set in any pre-industrial society, and b) fantasy authors get lost in the creation of piles and piles of utterly arbitrary rules and laws to govern their fantasy world. So I really shouldn't have enjoyed Catherynne M. Valente's - and wow at the spelling of that pen name - novel for young adults, one with the quite remarkable title of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, at all. As it concerns itself with a young girl in a fairy kingdom who resolves to have words with the land's new marquess about all of the utterly arbitrary rules and laws that are being instituted, it just doesn't seem like it's the book for me.

And yet, drawn in by curiosity over the book's remarkable and silly name, I found this much less tedious or twee than I feared. The heroine, a girl from wartime Nebraska named September who is cut from the same cloth as Dorothy or Alice, suffers from the genre trap of being just a little too clever for the situations and the traps of her weird world. But she's just engaging enough to make readers really worry about whether she'll make it to the story's end in one piece. Early on, she sacrifices her shadow, a fate I really don't recall any protagonist that I've ever met suffering before, and I found myself inordinately troubled.

It's not without its flaws. The entire first chapter was lost upon me. I have read very little from the genre and enjoyed almost none of it to speak of, and the entire business of the Green Wind visiting September to take her on a magic carpet ride and tell her rules feels like it is luxuriating in every bad and unfair stereotype of the form. Even when September arrives and the book takes the postmodern detour through immigration, it's to deliver more and more arbitrary rules, the sort which will probably have the effect of spoiling the promise of all that promised chocolate at the climax on account of somebody pilfering fizzy lifting drinks several chapters previously. In short, despite the vivid depiction of the world and characters, it's business as usual for the trope and an agonizing expectation-settling disappointment for a good thirty pages before things get weird in the fairyland and September gets the chance to shine.

Interestingly, as the narrative continues, the sense of whimsy is overwhelmed by senses of loss and purpose. It becomes, magically, a book about consequences. September starts to see how her actions affect the world, and the marquess, already knowing this, rationalizes the consequences of her cruelty in terms of the ends justifying the means, when even the ends are questionable. The acceleration from playful world-building into tough reality is gradual enough that it's easy to miss where it's going. It's also easy to miss where it begins, but I'll peg it on a fabulous scene where September, watching a newsreel in a fairyland theater, is confronted by the shocking presence of the subject of the newsreel suddenly speaking as though a live transmission. It's a playful novel, but one that's grown-up enough to know when it's time to put away the toys and think seriously about what to do next. Recommended.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The ABC Warriors: The Volgan War Volume 01

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 ABC Warriors: The Volgan War Volume 01 (Rebellion, 2011).

Here's a book that I like a lot, but not quite in the format I would prefer. Explaining the situation requires a little backstory. Since British writer Pat Mills found success working in the French comic industry, which is based around annual "album" releases of a 64- or 80-page story, or, if you will, a yearly episode of a much larger story, he's exported the form to 2000 AD, the comic that he created in 1977. As 2000 AD programs strips in weekly six-page chunks, Mills' annual story is further subdivided into, say, ten or so weekly episodes.

Working in this format, Mills is able to tell incredibly long stories across several years, and Rebellion, the publisher of 2000 AD, has two prospective revenue streams for the reprints. Working in conjunction with artist Clint Langley, Mills first used the experiment to craft six 48-page episodes of Slaine. These were paired together and reprinted in three large, oversized, but thin hardbacks with an eye on the European market, where this sort of material could safely be expected to sell by the bucketload in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. In these countries, the hardback "album" has long been the default format for the comic medium, much in the way that monthly "floppy" superhero funnybooks from Marvel and DC are the default in the United States.

Mills and Langley's next project was revisiting the writer's classic ABC Warriors, which has appeared off and on since 1979. It's a far-future tale of squabbling robots built for war, with programmed personalities that bring them into conflict with each other as much as the enemy. Some of their adventures are far better than others, but even at Mills' most self-indulgent, the series has always been readable and entertaining.

The project is called "The Volgan War" and it appeared as four annual stories from 2006-2009. In it, the characters reminisce about their original days of combat before uniting, only to find some common threads in their stories, including the strange, classified appearances of a top-secret special forces flamethrower robot. As the series unfolds - and it sags a bit in the third chunk before roaring to a colossal, incredible finish - the events of the old Volgan War come back to haunt the Warriors on Mars in very unexpected ways, leaving the team permanently fragmented and new, dangerous enemies waiting for them.

Overall, I think it's a masterpiece, and easily the best Warriors adventure since 1988's classic "Black Hole," even with some of the head-scratching events of the third volume. It works extremely well in hardback form as well. Following the precedent of the oversized Slaine books assembled with Europe in mind, Rebellion collected the four 80-page stories, beefed them up with some additional artwork by Langley and some extra design work, and released a quartet of 96-page hardbacks.

But there was already an existing line of ABC Warriors paperbacks, all nice and uniform, in Rebellion's attractive "rainbow spine" trim that reprinted all of the characters' previous adventures. To accommodate fans of that line, the publisher has reissued the first two of the four hardbacks in matching design. They look very nice, and indeed the story is a real treat... but why in the sam hill have they gone the route of four separate 96-page books instead of a single 384-page collection under one set of covers? Wouldn't that have been something amazing to see? Recommended, but with the understanding that we would have liked to see something a little more of a knockout when the story came to paperback.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Anya's Ghost

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 Anya's Ghost (First Second, 2011).

Here's an unexpectedly fun little book. It kept me utterly absorbed for about an hour, watching the grouchy, not-quite-fit-in Anya deal with rough teenage angst. An immigrant at a "lower tier private school" (a perfect description by an reviewer that I'm not going to better), Anya is out of place, drifting and uncomfortable with both her heritage and her body.

An accident sees Anya stumbling upon a nearly century-old skeleton and a lonely ghost who can't move very far from her body, but taking a bone from the corpse's finger lets her bring the ghost home with her. Over time, the ghost is revealed to be a bit more than someone in whom Anya can confide. What seems like understandable ignorance of 21st Century culture is revealed to have more malice than Anya thought, and it isn't long before Anya realizes that her new "friend" has decades of issues to work out...

This is the debut work by Vera Brosgol and I really enjoyed it. I don't think that it really pushes against boundaries or expectations very much. Like a TV movie, there is an economy of speaking parts, so that every character in the narrative has a role to play beyond their introduction. Working within that framework, it tells a good story quite competently, with a wonderful sense of flair and design.

I like the way that the characters look - there's a clear influence from Bryan Lee O'Malley and Faith Erin Hicks - and I like how they interact with their environment. Most impressive is the way that Bosgol subverts the natural sympathy readers will have over the ghost, Emily, and her ugly demise in the 1910s. Just because Emily died young and just as lonely as Anya doesn't necessarily make her a good person or a worthwhile friend. A pleasantly surprising and recommended read.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

2000 AD prog 1771

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 # 1771 (Rebellion, 2012).

One of alien editor Tharg's strangest decisions of late has been to celebrate the venerable 2000 AD's 35th anniversary without the by-now customary launch issue, with the start of several new stories. Instead, with February's issue 1771, we join four stories in progress, a recently-launched, ongoing series begins a new storyline, and two classics from the past get new looks in the form of "what if" adventures, which seem like they're just asking for the publisher, Rebellion, to receive a strongly-worded letter from Marvel Comics about trademark infringement. Nevertheless, even if this isn't the most new-reader-friendly edition, it is still great fun.

But if that terrific cover by Chris Weston isn't the draw for new or lapsed readers, then the two "what if"s might be. The first is a Rogue Trooper one-off by Andy Diggle and one of the classic series' original artists from its 1980s run, Colin Wilson. These two had collaborated on several memorable episodes of The Losers for Vertigo about five or six years back. This story looks at what might have happened had Rogue died early on in his adventures and one of his fellow clone troopers survive instead. It's a very good and very mean tale of backstabbing and double-crossing, gorgeously illustrated by an artist of whom we never see enough work.

While Diggle and Wilson only contribute to 2000 AD very sporadically these days - Diggle, happily, is said to have two series scheduled for the publisher later this year - Pat Mills and Henry Flint are creators that we see fairly regularly. They last collaborated together about six years ago, but have been seen many times with many other stories since. Their one-shot is a completely unexpected return for the gleefully mean-spirited and faintly ridiculous Visible Man, who appeared in a single six-part serial back in 1978. Mills decided to sort of subvert the intent of the "what if" remit, and just asks, basically, "what if the Visible Man returned," and provides a "pilot" for a potential new series. As if the Guv'nor didn't have enough to write already.

The regular lineup includes Judge Dredd apparently about halfway through a major epic about germ warfare in his city, Absalom wrapping up his third story and saving London from a magical threat, Strontium Dog Johnny Alpha hitting the conclusion of the second in a three-story series about the character's resurrection, Nikolai Dante saving his lady love for one of the very last times as this epic series draws closer to its grand finale, and the new Grey Area starting a new story about an alien that's either microscopic or disembodied but who is certainly very, very weird. This is a heck of a strong lineup, without a joker in the deck.

A note about Weston's cover: it's a terrific piece of artwork, updating and celebrating a classic piece that Brian Bolland had contributed for an American reprint in the 1980s, but focusing exclusively on characters who have appeared in the past five or six years. That's as it should be, as 2000 AD is certainly in the midst of a second golden age right now, and should not need to rely on the visuals of oldies-but-goodies such as Nemesis the Warlock, Rogue Trooper or D.R. and Quinch. If, looking at that cover, you don't recognize modern classics like Inspector Absalom, Spartacus Dandridge, Dirty Frank, Stickleback and Zombo, then you, my friend, are definitely missing out.

I think that the only complaint that I have - well, apart from hiding Indigo Prime's Max Winwood and Ishmael Cord up in the top corner where the logo obscures them on the finished piece - is that it's a little too male-heavy, with just Aimee Nixon and Vegas Carter representing the comic's still-too-small female contingent. It's a shame that Weston couldn't have included Maggie Roth, Rowan Morrigan, Mariah Kiss, or Birdy from Grey Area, each of whom are doing something to combat the not-entirely-unfair perception that the comic's a bit of a "sausage-fest." Still, gender politics aside, that's some damn fine art, Mr. Weston. You've got a good droid there, Tharg. I hope he gets to draw Winwood and Cord a lot more often.

Recommended? Of course it is. Why the heck are you reading this fool review when you should be clicking the link and buying the comic?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

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 Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (Pocket, 1987).

I first attempted reading this book as a teenager, and did not get it. I couldn't visualize most of it, I didn't understand it, and it committed the cardinal sin - for Douglas Adams - of not amusing me. I was also aggravated, in that way that only self-important teenagers can get, that Adams reused characters and concepts from two of his Doctor Who scripts. One of them, "Shada," was never actually completed, due to a big conflict between the BBC and one of the unions, and so Adams felt it was okay to move characters and settings into a new "universe" and give them a chance to be seen. Humorlessly, I was incensed by this, probably to such a degree that nobody, not even the remarkable Adams, could let the grouchy sixteen year-old idiot that I was see the funny side of it.

It is a really weird book, with the titular Dirk Gently serving as a supporting character for much of it. He was once a classmate of a computer programmer, Richard MacDuff, at St. Cedd's College, Cambridge. MacDuff returns to St. Cedd's to visit with his former tutor, "Reg" Chronotis, who made the jump from "Shada" into this book. MacDuff and Chronotis become aware of a curious problem that involves time travel, ghosts, structurally impossible sofas, and the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Agonizing Beatles puns are also involved.

Dirk Gently, a master of very strange coincidences, is now working as a "holistic" detective, vaguely solving crimes and finding missing cats by noting how everything in the world is, somehow, interconnected. He gets involved, or, rather, manipulates MacDuff to ensure his involvement. Having seen Steven Moffat's amazing Sherlock, I could not read Gently without hearing Benedict Cumberpatch's voice. (Stephen Mangan plays the character in a new BBC TV series that part of me is afraid to watch for fear of spoiling that voice!)

The climax of the book is still a little bit troubling. Adams can be forgiven for reusing St. Cedd's, Chronotis, and noticeable bits of dialogue from "Shada," as it was not completed and wouldn't even be made publicly available in its unfinished form for another five years. (Gareth Roberts, who is as close to Adams' spiritual successor as any we're likely to get, has actually novelized that story, and I understand that the book is to be released this month.) However, it's one thing to rip off your unfinished, unpublished work and another to borrow from something that was shown and repeated worldwide. The climax is lifted entirely from another Who serial by Adams, "City of Death," and it just feels like cheating.

On the other hand, the book really is funny and I enjoyed both the incredibly clever structure and the twinkling wit on display. And perhaps, in the end, the climax shouldn't be that much of an issue when all of the getting there is so entertaining. Adams, if we are honest, always did have trouble with the conclusions of his stories. None of the Hitchhiker's Guide tales have endings even a quarter as entertaining as the loopy and wild journeys along the way, and, let's face it, the guy completely botched his own ending, having the poor sense to die a good thirty or forty years before he should have. A small reservation, then, and recommended over and above it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Strontium Dog: The Project

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: The Project (Rebellion, 2011-2012).

Johnny Alpha's resurrection in the pages of 2000 AD has made for some fascinating comics. The character, who had been the lead in the Strontium Dog feature, had met his end in 1990, ending the series and shifting the focus onto the supporting players. A decade later, creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra began telling "flashback" stories set at various points in Johnny's lifetime, but always left his demise, which had been orchestrated by other creators, intact.

In 2010, Wagner and Ezquerra got everybody in fandom talking with a remarkable story called "The Death and Life of Johnny Alpha." In it, a supporting character from these flashback stories tracks down Johnny's old partner Middenface McNulty. She's following up a story that suggests Johnny had not been killed in his final adventure after all. The trail leads them to a disgraced bounty hunter named Feral and more and more clues, tying into classic Strontium Dog continuity and introducing some wild concepts that build on the originals. Johnny Alpha's universe had always been a very strange one, with the dark magic of villains like Malak Brood and the Sorcerors of Lyra waiting in the shadows of the western-in-space melodrama. This story delves straight into the darkness, and the story, the first of an apparent arc of three, ends with Johnny Alpha restored to life, but with a very weird price.

The second story, "The Project," began in December's Prog 2012 and continued for the next eight issues (1764-1771, for those interested in clicking the image and purchasing them from Clickwheel). It's all kinds of fun, with the Johnny who came back from... wherever he was not quite the same man he was before. He has a strange voice in his head that keeps chastising him, and he's not quick to confide in Middenface about it. Recuperating, they are attacked by strange gunmen who can regenerate their bodies after death, and who have badges from the Search/Destroy Agency that employs the Strontium Dogs.

As an action thriller with a slow-burning detective fiction edge, this is an incredibly fun and rewarding comic, and each installment left me anxious to learn what would happen next. This is why I read comics, basically. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Avengers: The Inside Story

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 Avengers: The Inside Story (Titan, 2008).

One thing that I'll always firmly believe is that The Avengers was one of the best two or three TV shows of the 1960s. It's become a little sadly fashionable, as the medium matures and, apart from stuff on CBS, mostly leaves episodic programming behind for more sophisticated and intricate drama, to think of the show as a relic. It is, inarguably, dated. Darn near everything from its period is. It is simple and shallow melodrama, but, and this is a big but, it was made with more style, wit and panache than anything else in its day. If viewers are willing to accommodate the program's simplicity, then it remains a complete thrill and joy to watch.

In the nineties, the show's star, Patrick Macnee, teamed up with the eminent uber-fan Dave Rogers to pen a memoir about his time on the show. Titan reissued this volume in enhanced, hardcover packaging and under a new title in 2008, and, among the many Avengers books that have been written, this is certainly among my favorites. Macnee is very forthright and unflattering about his own problems, errors of judgement and poor decisions during the 1960s, and this gives the book a real sense of honesty and sincerity. He loves The Avengers, and rightly so, but he's clearly spent the decades since it ended kicking himself for not making it a more consistent and exciting product. It's not all behind-the-scenes gossip and dirt, but it must be said that his candor about his addiction to a since-banned diet pill with ugly side effects is really eye-popping, as is his self-loathing about not stepping up and taking on the studio and the network for their casual indifference to Diana Rigg, his co-star for three years. Some of his other candor, about, for instance, his gigantic sideburns during the show's final year, is a little more amusing.

I really appreciated the way that Macnee chose to think of The New Avengers, which was badly flawed but often very fun, as simply more episodes of the program and not an inferior sequel. There's a real sense of Macnee wishing to be honest and give an accurate record of what The Avengers was for all of its long run. The original season of 26 episodes, when Macnee played the co-star part to the original series lead, Ian Hendry, gets more detail and attention here than just about any other book that I can recall.

It is very lavishly illustrated with dozens of photographs that I've never seen before. The whole package is one that just glows with love and affection, and I certainly recommend it to any fans of the show.