Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Spectral Engine

by Ray Fawkes

Ray Fawkes can be a challenging writer and artist.  His One Soul is a difficult but rewarding read, while his new Image series, Intersect, lost me after two issues.  I wasn't sure what to expect with The Spectral Engine, but I think it is easily my favourite work from him to date.

This book strings together a number of ghost stories from across Canada with the linking theme of the Spectral Engine, a ghost train that endless criss-crosses the country, picking up lost souls.  Fawkes moves roughly from east to west in this book, but often doubles-back, both geographically and chronologically.

We work through a number of vignettes, encompassing a couple of disasters at sea (including during the War of 1812), stories of people becoming lost in the winter woods, a nun who falls through ice while trying to stop a murder, and a disastrous attempt at peace between two warring tribes.  We also get a Wendigo story, which is always welcome.

I think my favourite vignette involves a despairing young woman during the short span of time that Toronto's subway system tried to run three separate lines across two sets of train tracks, an experiment which ultimately led to the closing of the lower Bay Station.

Fawkes's art is often very minimalist, and that works very well here, as we are given only the smallest amount of information that we need in order to understand the stories.  I love the sense of both familiarity and strangeness that Fawkes evokes throughout this work, giving a different sense of the history of my country.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Written by Alex De Campi
Art by Igor Kordey, Milton, Felipe Sobreiro, Carla Speed McNeil, Richard Pace, Dan McDaid, Mack Chatter, Colleen Doran, Bill Sienkiewicz, Alice Duke, Alem Curin, Jesse Hamm, James Smith, and RM Guéra

In 2013, Dark Horse published Smoke and Ashes in one volume, a nicely designed and chunky hunk of comics that has given me a lot of pleasure this week.  The two stories, both written by Alex De Campi, were separated by about seven years in their publication, with the second being the sequel to the first.

I decided it would be best to discuss each story separately, and to take a bit of a break between reading the two stories.


I'd meant to pick this story up a number of times over the years, but I never saw more than the first issue, and didn't want to get swept up in a story I wouldn't be able to finish.  I'm glad I waited, as this was a very satisfying reading experience.

The story is set in a slightly into the future London (which, coincidentally, is more or less now, but would have been the future when De Campi wrote the story).  England is just about completely broke, and the IMF is poised to put their own measures in place to fix things.  A man named Lauderdale, who has the ear of the buffoonish Prime Minister, has a plan to fix things, and to profit for himself in the process.

His plot involves the kidnapping of the President of OPEC by an unwitting group of militant overweight people who want to use him as a bargaining chip in their quest for free plastic surgery in Argentina.  While the President is out of pocket, the plan is for OPEC to place England under a fuel embargo, which the government will be able to use to make a fortune on the futures market.

There are a couple of people who might be able to stop Lauderdale's plan, so he has them assassinated by a pair of freelancers who work for the government.  What he doesn't know is that one of his two targets is a close friend to Rupert Cain, the albino assassin he sent after the other target.  When Cain figures out what's happened, he makes it his business to avenge his friend.  Along the way, a journalist, Katie Shah, ends up working with him, at great personal expense.

The story is complicated, and I haven't mentioned the inclusion of a reporter who is covering the whole thing, the shadowy cabal that has been running England since the Second World War, nor the complicated relationship between Cain and his friend's daughter.  De Campi really packs a lot into the hundred and sixty pages that make up this story.

Things never feel complicated though, and Igor Kordey does a great job of helping keep things straight.  I've been a big fan of Kordey's work for a long time now (if all you've ever seen of his stuff is his New X-Men, you need to look at the rest of his body of work), so I really liked seeing what he did here.  Some of the action sequences, like the one where a group of killers try to take Cain out at a train station from the opposite platform, are incredibly impressive.


Ashes is a very different beast than Smoke.  There was some sort of controversy about it involving Kickstarter and a falling out with the first artist De Campi worked with, but I don't remember what that was all about, and don't really see it as relevant to discussing the book.

It opens a few years after the events of Smoke.  London is not in great shape, but Katie Shah is even worse off.  After her involvement in the previous story, she's been effectively blacklisted in the field of journalism, and she's taken to drinking and sleeping with awful men.

In America, the body of No Face, the cyborg assassin from Smoke, is inadvertently given access to the Internet, and he transfers his consciousness just about everywhere.  All No Face wants is to get back at Rupert Cain, and when Katie calls him on a cellphone, Cain is back on the grid.

In surveillance-mad London, there is really nowhere to hide, so Cain and Shah go on the run, leaning on an old military connection of Cain's for help.  As the story progresses, we learn that Cain had a connection to No Face from one of his first missions.  We also learn, once again, that the people in charge of the world are pretty terrible.

This story felt less focused than Smoke, as De Campi develops characters in minor roles, like the pregnant widow of the first soldier killed by No Face.  She also builds up some interesting ideas, such as stem cell-grown pork farms that don't have any animals, which are tangential to the story at best.

This story was drawn by a very large number of talented artists.  It was cool to see an up-and-comer like Dan McDaid working alongside artists like RM Guera, Colleen Doran, Bill Sienkiewicz, and the fantastic Carla Speed McNeil (who has a series with De Campi coming at Image).  The transitions between artists could be jarring at times, but overall, this is a lovely book.

De Campi has not written a lot, but hers is a name that I'm seeing more and more often, from her upcoming Image work to her Grindhouse series at Dark Horse.  She's definitely a very talented writer, and I'm glad I've finally gotten around to reading her seminal work.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Rachel Rising Vol. 1: The Shadow of Death

by Terry Moore

I have to give Terry Moore credit for a few things after reading the first volume of his most recent series, Rachel Rising.  When I think of Moore, I think of Strangers In Paradise, his very entertaining romantic comedy series.  His Echo was a cool science fiction series that kept me entertained throughout.  Nothing he's done to this point in his career prepared me for how creepy he can be, as evidenced by this collection of the first six issues of his still ongoing series.

When this book opens, young Rachel Beck has been buried in a shallow grave in a dried up creek.  She wakens, and violently digs her way out.  She has no memory of how she got there, other than a flashback of a masked man strangling her with rope, and she has the marks on her neck, and the haemorrhaging in her eyes to prove it.  She makes her way home, and goes to sleep.

As this story unfolds, we see people start to react to Rachel differently.  Her Aunt Johnny, the town mortician believes she is a ghost at first, and even her best friend doesn't know how to react to her.  After going to see the friend, Jet, perform at a local bar, Rachel gets knocked off a roof, and dies (again).  A little while later, she wakes up, terrifying her aunt and friend.  It soon becomes apparent that Rachel is, indeed, dead, and that some very strange things are going on in the town of Manson (nice choice of name).

While Rachel is going about her business, we also get to meet a young girl named Zoe, who was visited in her home by a blonde woman we see standing over Rachel's grave, and speaking to the man who pushes his fiancee off the bar roof, hitting Rachel in the process.  Zoe murders her sister, sets her house on fire, and steals the family car to bury her sister in the creek, where she meets the murderous fiancee, doing the same thing.

Later, Zoe meets up with Rachel and her friends, and we learn that only Rachel and Zoe can see the blonde woman.  There are a lot of little clues being left for us - the smoke that comes out of dead bodies when they move again, the references to Manson's history of involvement with witches, and the friendly local doctor who has kept his dead wife's body propped up in the living room for thirty years.  It's too early in the story for Moore to connect any dots, but he's doing a great job of laying the groundwork for an epic.

I love Moore's art.  His draftsmanship in this black and white book is as good as it's ever been, and his character work is becoming more and more refined.  The fiancee could be a stand in for Freddie from SiP, but there's something much more realistic about the guy, even as he's portrayed as a bit of a boorish caricature.

I regret having not dived into this series before now.  It's pretty compelling stuff.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Sin Titulo

by Cameron Stewart

When I think of Cameron Stewart, I think of books like Seaguy, Catwoman, and now Batgirl.  He's someone I equate with more cartoony, fun comics.  He's not someone that I would immediately think of as the person to create so surreal and compelling a book as Sin Titulo, his webseries that Dark Horse published in a single, beautiful, volume.

Alex Mackay is an underachieving fact checker for a magazine company who falls down a particularly strange rabbit hole.  He makes a visit to his grandfather's rest home, only to discover that his grandfather had passed a month before.  When picking up his effects, he finds a photo of the old guy with a beautiful young woman he's never seen before.  When he asks about the woman's identity, the staff behaves strangely, and make off with the picture.  While waiting for answers, he stumbles across the sadistic and abusive behaviour of one of the orderlies.

From here, things just keep getting stranger for Alex.  He follows the orderly when he gets off work, and that leads him to an odd building, where he bluffs his way past the front desk to find himself in a room with a desk and a video phone, and the woman from the photo looking back at him.  As things continue to get weirder, Alex becomes more obsessed with things, losing his job and his girl over his behaviour (not to mention his car).

Throughout the book, Alex experiences dreams about a tree on a beach, sometimes with a person sitting under it (hence the cover).  It's difficult to explain this part without giving away some pretty big stuff, but the book really becomes interesting once Alex meets a painter who has been having the same dream, and painting the same image over and over again.

Stewart captures perfectly the Kafkaesque quality of this story, as Alex never quite questions his sanity, despite the fact that everyone around him is treating him like a crazy person (and he's wanted for killing two police officers).  The internal logic of this story keeps things moving quite well, and Stewart really takes the time to flesh out Alex's character, showing us scenes from his childhood and from an office party that help to colour who he really is, even though they aren't completely necessary to the story.

The story is told in pages of eight panels, which fit quite tightly on these sideways pages.  That helps add to the claustrophobic feeling of the story, until a key page towards the end when Stewart uses the whole page to stunning effect.  The book ends with a fight scene that could only be done in comics, the logistics of which must have been very difficult to plan.

In all, this is a very satisfying read.  It's given me reason to look at Stewart's other work from a different perspective, and I hope to see him doing something so psychological again soon.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Not My Bag

by Sina Grace

I'd wanted to read Not My Bag for a while, because I've enjoyed Sina Grace's cartooning, and like the idea of him using memoir to shine a light on life in lower-high-end retail.

Needing to pay off some car repairs, Grace took a job at a prominent department store, becoming their 'Eileen Fisher specialist', and selling a line usually associated with older and larger women.  At first, Grace dives into the job with enthusiasm, but as he starts to see how the place works, and how the people above him manipulate their workers, he goes from enjoying his job to having attacks of paranoia and anxiety.

Grace fills this book with the types of insights you would expect from an intelligent and observant person in his position.  He talks about his sharkish co-workers, who are desperate for commissions, as well as his disdain for his own Persian-American community (interestingly, the only time that ethnicity enters the book).

Throughout the book, Grace also shows his own mental state during this time.  We see how the ghosts of former failed or unrealized relationships make it difficult to get closer to 'The Lawyer', his current love interest.  He drops hints about how his comics career is growing at this time as well, although not quickly enough to outpace his growing love of purchasing higher-end fashion items for himself.

Grace is a smart cartoonist.  I especially like the way he refrains from showing the face of Frankie, his manager.  She is always shown as wearing different masks, most notably a Guy Fawkes/V For Vendetta one when she is at her angriest.

This book made me appreciate how comparatively simple my own forays into retail were, although I think anyone who's worked in the industry at any level would recognize the way the system treats the people at the bottom of the totem pole.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Hawken: Genesis

Written by Dan Jevons, Miles Williams, Khang Le, and Jeremy Barlow
Art by Fracisco Ruiz Velasco, Alex Sanchez, Kody Chamberlain, Sid Kotian, Bill Sienkiewicz, Bagus Hutomo, Michael Gaydos, Federico Dallocchio, Nathan Fox, and Christopher Moeller

I picked up two issues of Archaia's Hawken: Melee mini-series, because they featured work by Jim Mahfood and Nathan Fox, both of whom are on my buy-on-site list.  I was impressed with the depth of the Hawken world, and its celebration of war-suit pilots on a level we reserve for athletes, pop singers, and actors.

I don't play video games, and have no knowledge of Hawken outside of those two comics, but Hawken: Genesis caught my eye because of the lovely design work by Archaia, and because of the list of artists associated with the project.  It explains why the planet of Illal, a resource-rich colony planet controlled by various corporations, has become a blasted war zone, infected by a nano-virus that is taking over the surface.

The writers of this book focus the story around two men, Rion Lazlo, a ruthless corporate spy with unbridled ambition, and James Hawken, a brilliant scientist responsible for the best and worst advancements on the planet.  When the book opens, Hawkens is toiling away in obscurity for Sentium, one of the two big corporations that run everything on the planet.  Lazlo has defected to Prosk, Sentium's rival, and he manages to bring his friend over.

Eventually, Hawken develops the technology that allows for lightweight and fast mech devices, which are of course, immediately put into warfare.  As relations between the two corporations worsen, and as resource scarcity makes war more profitable, things just keep getting worse on Illal, although the depth of the problems take a while to be revealed.

This book follows these two characters over a few decades, setting up what I assume is the environment and rationale for the game to exist in.  The writers do a good job of covering the human and business reasons, and make good use of text pages to fill in some backstory.

The big draw to this book is the art, which is provided by comics artists as well as game design types.  Each chapter and interlude has been drawn or painted by somebody different, although there is decent visual stability throughout the book.  This was an impressive project, and I hope it's something that Archaia revisits.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Grandville Bête Noire

by Bryan Talbot

Bryan Talbot's Grandville stories are always a delight, and the third in the series, Bête Noir, is no exception.

These large graphic albums could have easily gone off the rails, buried under the weight of Tablot's central concept, but instead, these books are very well realized, gripping and beautiful adventure stories.

In the world of Grandville, Paris is the most important city in the world.  It has recently shaken off Napoleonic control, and is moving towards democracy.  England has been independent of French control for only about twenty years.  Talking animals are the ruling class, while humans (not so affectionately called 'doughfaces') make up a servant underclass, although they are beginning to advocate for their rights.  Oh, Talbot has embraced 'steampunk' ideals in designing this world.

Into this mix, we get the machinations of Baron Krapaud, an immensely rich toad, who would like very much to see democracy not gain a foothold in Paris.  He has a plan involving discrediting representational fine arts in favour of the abstract, and in placing automaton soldiers throughout the city to do his bidding.  I know that those two things don't really go together, but Talbot makes it all make sense, rather wonderfully.

Inspector LeBrock, our usual hero, gets involved when a French detective comes to him for help in solving a closed-door mystery, the murder of an artist set to design an important mural.  LeBrock and his associate, Roderick, make their way to Grandville, and waste little time in getting involved in the intrigue.

Talbot pays homage to James Bond films in this volume, as well as to the Wind in the Willows, through his choice of villain.  I enjoyed the depth of thought put into this book, as well as Talbot's always amazing artwork.  For such a short book, Talbot packs in a lot of information, and character development, by way of finally giving us a closer look at LeBrock's past, as he and the high-class prostitute Billie.  Talbot sets up the next volume (presumably) by letting us know that his greatest enemy is about to be released from prison.

I cannot recommend this book, and this series in general, enough.  It is a very solid read.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Richard Stark's Parker: The Score

Written by Donald Westlake
Adapted by Darwyn Cooke

As I've said before, I have no connection to Richard Stark's writing, or to the character of Parker, a gruff master thief.  I am, however, a big fan of Darwyn Cooke's art and writing, and so I am always happy to pick up one of his Parker graphic novels.

The Score is the third in his series of adaptations, and I think it is the best one I've read to date.  Cooke (or Stark; I'm not sure if he's taking liberties with pacing) wastes no time setting up the plot of this story.  A man has gathered a group of criminals to help him execute a really big job.

This guy, Edgars, wants Parker to organize a heist which will take out an entire town - Copper Canyon, North Dakota.  The entire town is surrounded by cliffs, and is attached to a large mining operation.  Edgars has it all figured out - the group can take the mine's payroll, and knock off the two banks and the various stores in one night, and take off with a large score (at least for the time - the notion of doing all this for only a quarter of a million dollars is a little laughable now).

I like stories that concern themselves as much with the set-up of jobs like this as they do the actual mission itself, and Cooke balances the story nicely.  When the job goes down, it goes without saying that something goes wrong, but Stark doesn't seem all that interested in including moral lessons in his work, so the town has a pretty bad night.

What really makes these books work is the great period detail in Cooke's art.  The story has moved beyond feeling outdated to feeling vintage.  A story like this could never be told in our modern time, and Cooke wallows in nostalgia for a simpler, better-looking time.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Concrete Park Vol. 1: You Send Me

Written by Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander
Art by Tony Puryear

I first read Concrete Park when it appeared in the 80-page run of Dark Horse Presents, and I was immediately impressed by what I saw.  Tony Puryear and his collaborators Erika Alexander and Robert Alexander (who is given a co-creator credit) have put together a very complete and interesting science fiction story, and each eight-page story only scratched the surface of the depth of planning and intent conveyed on each page.  It also left me wanting more, and kept me buying the anthology for longer than I'd intended.

Concrete Park was recently given its own limited series, although unfortunately that's been stealth-canceled by Dark Horse, with the last two issues to be printed as part of the second hardcover.  Just days before learning that, I'd picked up this first volume because I wanted to read these chapters again, and was curious to see how the story played out in a different format, with everything read together.

Basically, Concrete Park is about a whole bunch of people who were sent to a prison mining colony planet, who either escaped from custody, or were released on the surface, where they coalesced into Scare City, a gang-dominated warren of homes and businesses.  There are two main characters, so far as the reader is concerned.  Isaac was a gang-banger whose actions got his little sister killed.  We journey with him to the planet, where his prison 'bus' crashes on the surface.  Luca is the leader of the M-80s, a female gang.  Her territory has been targeted by other gang leaders, and when we meet her, she is in the middle of being set up by an ally.

Over the course of this short book, Puryear and company introduce a number of other interesting characters, like Monkfish the shape changer, and Silas, a gang leader who is really an alien.  The complexity of Scare City and its various factions is pretty fascinating, and Puryear's bold sense of graphic design and figure work really makes this book look nice.  His characters are all visually distinct, while he captures perfectly the sun-drenched environment they live in.

There has been a real resurgence in terms of quality science fiction comics over the last five years or so, and I would put this book among the best of them.  Puryear has developed and extensive vocabulary for his world, often blending Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and other languages to come up with a vibrant slang argot.  Everything about this comic feels like it was considered carefully and has a purpose.

I'm not happy that the second volume had its plans shifted, but having read this book in this format, I know I'm not going to complain when I pick up the second volume and get to read through it in one sitting.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Broadcast

Written by Eric Hobbs
Art by Noel Tuazon

In 1938, Orson Welles broadcast his radio play The War of the Worlds, adapting HG Wells's novel of the same name about a Martian attack to radio.  Famously, people actually believed that the broadcast was factual, and panic broke out in a number of spots across the country (obviously the people of America were not as media-savvy in the 30s as the people of today, who know that everything broadcast by say, Fox News, is going to be true).

This situation provides the backdrop for The Broadcast, an excellent 2010 graphic novel by Eric Hobbs and Noel Tuazon.  The story is set in rural Indiana, and it uses the event as a springboard to explore class and race at that time.

Our main character is Gavin, the charming son of a farmer, who wants nothing more than to marry Kim Schrader, the daughter of a powerful local landowner, and run off to New York to help her pursue her dream of becoming a writer.  As the book opens, Gavin goes to meet with Kim's father, to get his blessing to propose, but he ends up leaving insulted and angry.  During this visit, we also learn that two of Mr. Schrader's employees used to own the land that he now pays them to farm.  One of the farmers is fine with this situation, while the other, Jacob, a widower, is not.

The final player in this drama is Marvin, an African-American man who was attacked by a couple of whites and almost killed, who ends up near Gavin's father's farm, and is taken in by the very nice family to recuperate from his wounds.

The titular broadcast takes place on a stormy night, and the power goes out at a key point in the radio play, leading the characters to believe that the attack must be real, and that the radio station has fallen to the attacking Martians.  Everyone panics, and all of our main players converge, with their families, on Schrader's farm, which is the only place in the area with a reliable storm shelter.  The hope is that the families can hide out there until the invasion is over.  The discovery of what happened to the men who attacked Marvin (it's not pretty) makes their belief in the seriousness of their situation even stronger.

The big problems is that Schrader's shelter can only hold a small amount of the assembled people, and so everyone falls to in-fighting, scheming, and class warfare.  Jacob is the most direct character here, resorting to violence so as to protect his daughter, but Schrader remains the most interesting character.

Hobbs does a terrific job of setting up these characters and this situation, and then just letting everything play out as it should.  Tuazon's art, like always, is scratchy and at times hard to follow, but that adds to the sense of confusion that the characters are feeling.  Like their more recent book, Family Ties, this is a very good read that is not your typical graphic novel.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Retro-Reviews: An Incomplete Look at Avengers #341-402: The 90s!

Avengers #341-342, 345-347, 350-351, 368-369, and 400-402 (Nov ‘91 - Sept ‘96)

Written by Fabian Nicieza (341-342), Bob Harras (345-347, 350-351, 368-369), John Lewandowski (350), and Mark Waid (400-402)

Pencilled by Steve Epting (341-342, 345-347, 350, 368-369), Kevin Kobasic (350), Kevin West (351), Jan Duursema (369), Mike Wieringo (400), and Mike Deodato (401-402)

Inked by Tom Palmer (341-342, 345-347, 350, 368-369, 400-402), Ariane Lenshoek-Pinheiro (350), Bud LaRosa (351), and Don Hudson (369)

For these five years (and at least a year afterwards), I didn’t buy the Avengers regularly, and have never felt the need in all the years since to fill in the gaps.  I was getting pretty bored with the inconsistencies of the book that I outlined in my last retro-review, and as this was the early nineties, there were a ton of more interesting books crowing the comics store shelves.

When I did return to this book, it was because it was either tying in to a book that I still bought (like the Operation: Galactic Storm event or the Bloodties cross-over), or it featured guest characters I cared about at the time (like the New Warriors and the Starjammers).  Going through these issues, it’s clear that I didn’t miss much, especially over the thirty issues between 369 and 400, which look pretty god-awful.  I’ve heard a lot about the storyline called The Crossing over the years, but none of it has ever been good.

It’s interesting to look at this stuff now, and see how the trends of the 90s played out in what was previously always a pretty staid and calm title.  This period began with the in-your-face character Rage being sidelined (a good thing, believe me), and moved through elements like many of the Avengers starting to wear matching jackets over the uniforms (with their sleeves rolled up, 90s style), long hair and stubble on men (Hercules shaves his beard, and Black Knight gets red eyes and stubble, making him look like Gambit), weird costume choices (Thor begins to bare his mid-riff, and adds a length of chain to the end of his hammer), bizarre character redesigns (Wasp somehow turns into a giant taloned cross between a woman and an actual wasp, but looks more like an alien; Iron Man gets replaced by a teenage Tony Stark from another dimenson), and, of course, pouches (like the ones that ring Goliath’s armpits).

Of course, because it’s the 90s, we should also mention the shiny covers, although I only ended up buying one of the three or four this series sported.  On a side note, I always hated the shiny cover phenomenon.  I found that they never looked very nice, necessitating less detail in the art than usual, and were spotlighting titles seemingly at random (for example, issue 369 is the end of a storyline; a weird place to try to pick up extra readers).  At this time, I was working in a pretty mediocre comics shop on week-ends, and the owner was one of those victims of the 90s, who was hoarding shiny covers, immediately marking them up to $10 an issue on the day of release, waiting for the right customer to come in and buy them all.  FYI, that never happened, and the store didn’t last long.  I didn’t even shop there…

One thing I did really like was the paper quality in that era.  It was a higher quality newsprint than what came before, which didn’t yellow, and provided more freedom in the quality of the colours it could support.  In some ways, I prefer it to the thin paper being used today.

Anyway, let’s take a quick look at some of the things that happened in these comics:

  • Rage gets angry when NY police beat a friend of his in a racially motivated incident (proving that things haven’t changed a whole lot since the 90s in the real world), and his involvement, along with the New Warriors and the Sons of the Serpent get the Avengers involved.  The presence of the Hate Monger makes them all angry.
  • I’ve never liked Mark Bagley’s costume designs, but the pink armor that Namorita wore for a while has to be one of the worst designs in the history of everything.
  • Falcon gets added to the roster for the length of this story alone, because when you need to counter-balance Rage, you get a nice calm African-American superhero, and Falcon’s the only one the Avengers know.
  • In Operation Galactic Storm, the Avengers get involved in the war between the Kree and the Shi’ar.  The Stargates they use are putting our sun at risk, so Captain America leads a group into space to mediate.
  • The whole war seems to be the product of the manipulations of the Supreme Intelligence, who wants to just about wipe out his own people so they can grow back stronger.
  • After a devastating event, the Avengers have to decide what to do with the Intelligence.  The more angry Avengers decide that they have to kill or destroy him (since it’s not clear if he’s alive or not), but Cap doesn’t agree with this decision.  The Black Knight goes ahead and does it anyway, which makes Cap angry (even though the Intelligence actually escapes).
  • A couple of issues later, two of the Starjammers are hired by a Kree to go to Earth and kill the Black Knight for his crime, and that turns into a thing.  Professor X and Cyclops are there hanging out when it happens, and so is Binary.
  • Seventeen issues later, the Avengers and the X-Men get involved in some nonsense involving Genosha, and the Acolytes’ desire to kidnap Luna, the daughter of Crystal and Quicksilver (and granddaughter of Magneto), because she is human (despite being half-Inhuman).  Nick Fury gives a lot of orders, and looks very 90s in this issue.
  • Exodus shows up at the end, and there is a nice shiny cover.
  • Thirty odd issues after that, Mark Waid shows up to try to fix the book’s reputation before it ends, in the ill-conceived Heroes Reborn event, which had Image folk like Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee redesign all of Marvel’s main books.
  • Waid and artist Mike Wieringo have the Avengers fight almost all of their greatest enemies in an extra-long and extra-fun issue.  This is not what’s really going on, instead one of their earliest foes is manipulating Jarvis into creating this threat.  
  • In the lead-up to the Onslaught storyline, which cleared the main non-X-Men heroes out of the Marvel U, the Avengers go to arrest Joseph, the amnesiac younger version of Magneto that used to hang out with Rogue and the X-Men in that era.
  • As Onslaught starts trashing New York, the Avengers go around trying to rescue people, and fill in some story space before heading off never to return (for a year or so).

There are a few things that I wondered about while reading these issues, that were perhaps addressed within the issues I missed, but could also have been the victims of 90s storytelling, and a very casual approach to continuity.  For the most part, I am curious to know what happened to the new headquarters, the building of which was featured throughout the run I wrote about in my previous column.  I also would like to know what happened to all the support staff.  At one point, people like Peggy Carter were still working for the Avengers, and then suddenly, Jarvis was all on his own.  Does anyone know?

The roster stabilized a little over these issues, but these issues still contained a number of characters at different times.  These comics featured:

  • Captain America
  • Vision (both the white and the coloured versions)
  • Thor (both Eric Masterson and the usual guy)
  • Sersi
  • Black Widow
  • Quasar
  • Hercules (both bearded and long-haired Fabio version)
  • Rage
  • Falcon
  • Crystal
  • Black Knight
  • Iron Man (both regular and young Tony Stark)
  • Hawkeye
  • Quicksilver
  • Scarlet Witch
  • Wasp (in her weird insect form)
  • Goliath

Art-wise, there are a few interesting things going on in these issues.  To begin with, it’s interesting to see what Steve Epting drew like at the beginning of his career, especially when you compare it to the work he has done recently on books like Captain America and Velvet.  There is promise in Epting’s work, especially when he’s inked by the great Tom Palmer (more on him momentarily), and it’s nice to see how far he’s come.

It was a nice surprise to see an issue drawn by the late great Mike Wieringo, an artist who was nothing but promising, and who had a unique approach to superheroics.

Mike Deodato drew the last two issues of the first volume of this title, and that seems suiting, seeing as there is no other artist I would associate with the Avengers in the 00’s and 10’s more than him.  He’s worked on almost every Avengers title of the last fifteen years, supporting both Brian Michael Bendis and Jonathan Hickman’s visions.  While I don’t always love his work, he’s also definitely come a long way since the mid-90s.
Tom Palmer deserves some special recognition, for having put in something like fifteen years on this title, and providing it with a visual consistency while the stories generally degraded.  He began working on this book with Roger Stern, just after the period that I started re-reading these comics at.  

When I began writing these Retro-Reviews, it was August, I was stuck at home recovering from minor surgery, and looking to travel a little ways down memory lane.  Now, I’ve reached the end of this historic volume of one of Marvel’s most important titles, and have a few thoughts on that trip.  The Avengers was never Marvel’s most exciting or dynamic book in the 80s and 90s.  It often became overly concerned with the team’s procedures, and they were consistently a reactive rather than proactive force, constantly getting sucked into events (and frequently other dimensions) unexpectedly.  The line-up kept changing, and while at times the team worked very professionally, at others it barely functioned.  As the 80s gave way to the 90s, the focus on character arcs that Roger Stern brought to the fore in the title disappeared, and things got really convoluted.  

It’s not hard to see why Marvel felt the need to reboot these characters, although the way they went about it, by giving the books to some pretty terrible writers (based on the popularity of their art), was unfortunate.

I’d thought about continuing my Avengers journey into the excellent Kurt Busiek/George Perez run (or perhaps the even better Busiek/Carlos Pacheco mini-series Avengers Forever), but am going to take a break from Avengers Mansion for a while, to dive into another Marvel title from the same era.  

Which will it be?  I’m not saying now, but I will give a couple of hints.  There’s an X in the title, and the book went through a few overhauls in its time, changing not just creative teams and line-ups, but central concepts on multiple occasions.  It is still being published today, but not for long, and not in any way that resembles how it began.  

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Dogs of War

Written by Sheila Keenan
Art by Nathan Fox

I'm kind of indifferent to pets, but I love a good war comic, and am a fan of Nathan Fox's art, so when I saw this graphic novel, I knew I wanted to read it, despite the fact that it's published by Scholastic, and is geared towards younger readers.

That's not entirely the case though, because like a rare subsection of young adult fiction, there's enough going on in these three stories, especially the last one, to keep an adult reader sufficiently engaged.

Dogs of War examines the role played by active service dogs in the military, across three conflicts: the two World Wars, and Vietnam.  The first story is about a young orphan who travels with the doctor who has taken him in, and his dog, to Belgium, where he assists the doctor in retrieving wounded and dying soldiers.  They are separated one night, and the boy (and his dog) end up staying with a group of Irish soldiers in the trenches, where the boy learns about trench life, and gets to participate in the unofficial Christmas truce of 1914.  This story is probably the most typically YA of any in the book, as we follow the time-honoured tradition of following boys who have snuck into areas they shouldn't be, where they have adventures, and grow as people.  It goes without saying that the dog is instrumental in keeping the soldiers alive.  Still, Nathan Fox's kinetic and rough art is perfect for showing the reality of trench warfare, so I loved this story.

The second story is set in Greenland, where a soldier from Maine is expected to put his dog-sledding experiences (I didn't know that was a Maine thing) to good use in helping run a rescue team.  The Americans are gearing up for war, and are building air bases on the ice.  When the soldier and his Sergeant go on a patrol to look for Nazis, the soldier and the unruly dog he's been trying to train end up alone and outnumbered.  Again, Fox's wonderful art really elevates the story, as the reader is really able to feel the confusion that a snowstorm whips up.

The final story is by far the best in the book.  It is narrated by a young boy who lives in a trailer park in North Carolina in 1968, where his only friend is a puppy that was found and given to him.  Slowly, the boy gets to know the man in the trailer next door, a haunted vet just returned from Vietnam, where he worked with a dog as a scout.  The two slowly begin to bond, and the man begins to open up to the boy, mostly because of the healing presence of Bouncer, the slightly wild pup.  This story works well in contrast to the other two, as the soldier's story is only slowly revealed, instead of being the only thing in the narrative.  Again, Fox does a terrific job of showing the chaos of that conflict.

In all, this was a very good collection of stories, and while it stuck pretty closely to the standard tropes of war comics, you can't really hold that against it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Retro-Reviews: Avengers #318-333 (June 1990-June 1991)

Written by Fabian Nicieza (#318- 324), Mark Gruenwald (#319-325), and Larry Hama (#326-333)
Pencilled by Paul Ryan (#318, 320, 322, 324, 326-332)  , Tom Morgan (#318), Rik Levins (#319, 321, 323-325), James Fry (#319-320), Jim Reddington (#321-322), Mickey Ritter (#323), Brad Vancata (#323), and Herb Trimpe (#333)
Inked by Tom Palmer (#318, 320, 322, 324, 326-), Christopher Ivy (#319, 321, 323), Keith Williams (#319-320), Mickey Ritter (#321-323), Fred Fredericks (#324-325), Reggie Jones (#333), and Tom Morgan (#333)
After John Byrne left the Avengers titles, things started to flounder again, as the book did not seem to have any sort of clear direction.  This set issues, which were published over the course of a year, thanks to an early experiment in double-shipping, were chosen for this review because my fifteen-year-old self stopped buying the title regularly with issue 333, and reading these books again, I could see why.
Fabian Nicieza dove in after John Byrne’s departure, finishing off his Nebula story arc, which featured Spider-Man, before writing ‘The Crossing Line.’ This six-part arc is basically an homage to The Hunt For Red October, and includes Alpha Flight and The Peoples’ Protectorate (a.k.a. The Soviet Super Soldiers) in a complicated story that touches on geo-politics, Altantean self-determination, and extra-dimensional exploration.  These stories were backed up by a long-ish Mark Gruenwald-written story featuring the Avengers support crew, which finished in a whole-issue story.  After that, Larry Hama came along, restructured the team’s charter, and debuted Rage, a total 90s character who showed up too early in that decade to be considered truly extreme.  Rage was the final nail in the coffin for me.
This set of issues can be recognized for the utter lack of character development, sub-plot, or consistency.  Characters appear and disappear almost at random.  The Black Widow is made a part of the active team, but goes issues without speaking or doing anything.  The team gets a new charter from the UN (they found out that their US charter is revoked while they are in the middle of an adventure, with no explanation or reaction), which leads to a very complicated structure of ‘active’ Avengers, ‘reserve substitute’ Avengers, ‘probationary reserve substitute’ Avengers, and regular old reserve Avengers.  The probationary members are Rage, because he’s angry and doesn’t want to be an Avenger anymore, and the Sandman, because he’s reforming, but is only around for like two issues, and no one talks about how or why he got invited.  It feels like a lot of thought was put into this structure.  The leader of the team is now referred to as the ‘Chair-being’, because ‘Chairman’ or ‘Chairperson’ is considered discriminatory.  The only problem is that Hama doesn’t bother investing any real emotion into any character other than Rage, and that character is just embarrassing.
Let’s take a look at the main story events from this run:
  • The Avengers and the Stranger defeat Nebula.
  • Captain America awkwardly fires Spider-Man, who had just been made a member of the team an issue or two before.
  • The Avengers, with Stingray in tow, try to find a stolen Soviet submarine, only to get into it with the People’s Protectorate.
  • Those two teams have to team-up to fight off some angry Atlanteans (because apparently no one noticed that the stolen Soviet sub was drifting alongside an underwater civilization).
  • When the sub crew goes to Newfoundland to effect repairs, Alpha Flight joins the two other hero teams in trying to stop the terrorist organization, actually called the Peace Corpse, from using the nuclear weapons on board.
  • Somehow, two of the terrorists are joined into a weird amalgamated being who sets off the nuclear bombs, forcing Shaman to stick everything into his pouch.
  • Various heroes, scattered throughout Shaman’s pouch, need to find each other and find their way out into the world again, without irradiating everything.
  • While the Avengers are in Canada, each member of their support team is confronted with a figure from their past, part of a scheme by Mother Night to control their minds so they can spy on the Avengers.
  • During a party (this was a theme that year), the mind-controlled crew try to kill the Avengers.
  • Rage, a large black man who goes shirtless under a leather vest and wears a yellow luchadore mask comes to the Avengers to complain about how they don’t have any ‘righteous’ black men on the team, because Black Panther is African and Falcon is a loser.
  • The guy who stopped Chernobyl from melting down comes to New York for treatment, but goes nuts, and the Avengers have to try to stop him.
  • Rage decides to destroy a condemned crack house which has a luxurious apartment in it where a gangster with a very prodigious vocabulary lives.
  • The Avengers fight the Russian guy, with help from Rage, and they all have to go to another dimension (another theme that year) to take away his powers.
  • In that other dimension, they fight a lot of monsterish creatures, who trick them into taking a little friend of theirs back to Earth.
  • That little monster brings the others to Earth, and they team up with the gangsters that don’t like Rage, and take his grandmother hostage.  She thinks they are devils from the Old Testament (seriously).
  • Quasar starts wearing one of the worst costumes of the early 90s.  It’s really terrible.
  • The Avengers announce their new UN charter, their complicated internal structure, and their new line-up.  Nowhere in this issue is there mention of the West Coast team, which continued to operate under different rules.
  • Spider-Man is one of these reserve substitutes, even though we saw him get fired before, and no explanation is given of how he made it back on the team.
  • Some other creatures, called the Tetrarchs of Entropy, come to Earth angry that the other monsters are out of the dimension where they imprisoned them.  They imprison the Avengers, who get free.
  • The Avengers and the Tetrarchs go to stop the monsters, and rescue Rage’s granny.
  • The Avengers have a party to show off their new headquarters.  Rage brings cupcakes from his granny (seriously).
  • The Avengers suspect that Doctor Doom has crashed their party, so they let Captain America, Vision, and Sandman investigate, without alarming their guests, who represent some of the most powerful people in the Marvel Universe, because they wouldn’t want to take them away from cocktail franks and Rage’s granny’s cupcakes.
  • Eventually everyone figures out that Doctor Doom is there, because he takes over the whole building, and threatens to blow it and himself up if the Avengers don’t help him free his mother from Hell, using whatever trick they used to free the monsters from before.  The Avengers explain that they can only do that with Thor, and they don’t know where he is right then, so they can’t help Doom.  Doom leaves.
  • At this point, I also left, dropping the title.
Like I said, this run was a mess.  I think I would have weathered the stupid plots, but the lack of character development (other than Rage) gave me no reason to stick around.  And really, Rage himself is a big problem.  I can appreciate that Hama was trying to address the consistent lack of diversity on the team, but Rage is just too clichéd and silly a character to make it work.  Had Hama played up the fact that he was just a fourteen year old in an adult body, like what Geoff Johns did with Captain Marvel in JSA, he might have gotten somewhere, but instead, I found the character exhausting, and not Avengers material.
It’s hard to say who was on the team during this era, as characters randomly appeared and disappeared a lot, and often just stood around in the background without doing anything.  Also, there were a lot of parties where former Avengers were invited.  From what I can guess, the line-up included:
  • Captain America
  • Vision
  • Sersi
  • She-Hulk
  • Thor
  • Iron Man
  • Spider-Man (briefly)
  • Quasar
  • Stingray (as an associate)
  • Rage (in a probationary role)
  • Sandman (in a probationary role)
  • Black Widow (in a ‘stand around and don’t even talk’ role)
Reading through these old issues has been fun, but really, everything after Roger Stern left in the upper 200s was moving along a downward spiral of mediocrity.  The art remained remarkably consistent, with Paul Ryan and inker extraordinaire Tom Palmer putting in some very nice work, but there were a lot more guest artists that muddied thing up.
After dropping the title, I did keep picking up some random issues, mostly because of tie-ins or guest stars, so for my next Retro-Review, I’ll look at the few issues I have that took us up to Heroes Reborn.  I’m pretty sure I skipped the worst of it though, as I’ve never read a chapter of The Crossing.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Tooth

Written by Cullen Bunn and Shawn Lee
Art by Matt Kindt

The Tooth, the beautifully designed hardcover published by Oni Press back in 2011, is a strange love letter to the earlier days of the Marvel Universe, when Stan Lee and his friends made comics that blurred the line between superheroes and monsters.

Graham Stone has come to his recently deceased grandfather's house to decide what to do with it, and his grandfather's strange collection of occult artifacts.  Graham is attacked by some creeps working for a local wizard, and soon enough, his life is unrecognizable, as he becomes the host of The Tooth, a man-shaped creature that grows from a large tooth now wedged into Graham's mouth.

The Tooth is an Incredible Hulk-like creature, with an origin story that harkens back to Ancient Greece.  He has to protect Graham and his fiancée, and find a way to help them stop the wizard dude.  Oh, there's also a big dragon in here, as well as another monster fight that happens in a dentist's office.

Writers Cullen Bunn and Shawn Lee have a lot of fun with the old school Marvel stylings of this story, from the bombastic narration, the editor's notes, and the fake letters pages and 'bullpen bulletin' style announcements that pepper the story.  Leaving the homage aside, this is a decent enough story that is fun to read.

Matt Kindt is one of my favourite artists for the singularity of his style.  It works well here, although someone less effectively than it does on his own titles like Mind MGMT or 3 Story.  He has a way of making the most outlandish ideas (and really, what's wilder than a yellowish seven-foot tall tooth fighting monsters?) work on the comics page.

This was a good read on a quiet weekend, and I'm sure this book was a lot of fun to make.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Retro-Reviews: The Avengers #305-317

Avengers #305 - 317 (July 1989 - May 1990)

Written by John Byrne, with scripting by Fabian Nicieza (#317)
Pencilled by Paul Ryan
Inked by Tom Palmer
In my last retro-review, which covered the set of issues that came after long-time writer Roger Stern left the book, I had written about how rudderless the Avengers series began to feel, and how I was curious to see how the addition of John Byrne as writer for an extended run would help stabilize things.
It looks like Byrne was intent on making a number of changes to the way in which the Avengers operated.  In his first issue (#305) he has Captain America assemble any and everyone who was ever considered a member of the team, to basically have a little pep rally.  He basically gets rid of the distinction between East Coast and West Coast teams (which makes sense, considering that Byrne was both writing and drawing the West Coast title, which reshuffled its name under his tenure), and declares that he doesn't really see the team as made up of active and reserve members anymore.  Instead, he'd like the ability to call up anyone he needs, when he needs them.  This goes over well enough, and leads to a pretty fluid line-up for the rest of Byrne's run, although to my mind, it's marked by the sudden disappearance of some characters (like the Black Panther, who is there for a couple of issues, and then just isn't).
Another change that Byrne brought to the book was the creation of a support staff for the Avengers.  It didn't really make sense to have Jarvis do everything for the team, especially after moving the Mansion to Hydro Base, so this was a wise change.  Strangely, none of these people were hired in the main title.  I vaguely remember Cap approaching some of them in his own title (like that annoying Fabian kid), and so suddenly, people like Peggy Carter and that O'Brien Guardian guy are just around, sometimes.  John Jameson too.  Also some plant-based villain, whose job is keeping the tropical Hydro Base plants alive once the island is based just off Manhattan.
Here are some of the things that happened in this run:
  • After Cap's pep rally, Lava Men attack the island and capture the Avengers, leaving Reed and Sue Richards to try to save the island from destruction.
  • Gilgamesh gets badly hurt fighting the Lava Men.
  • The Avengers try to get Sersi to help save Gilgamesh, which leads to a trip to Olympia, which has gone missing.
  • The Avengers search for Olympia in the Negative Zone, which leads to a big fight with Blastarr.
  • The Acts of Vengeance crossover begins, which leads to a bunch of robots attacking and sinking Hydro Base while all the Avengers are away.
  • A group of heroes fight off Freedom Force from attacking Avengers Park, which has become their main base after losing Hydro Base.
  • Mandarin and the Wizard (constantly referred to as the Wingless Wizard, which is just weird) then attack the same park, and get fought off by even more Avengers.
  • Loki is never actually revealed as being behind the Acts of Vengeance in this series, although it's pretty obvious.
  • Nebula shows up again, manipulating some old scientist into using a device that wipes out existence (although a small group of Avengers manage to continue existing to take the fight to her).
  • The Stranger shows up because Nebula stole some super-weapon from him.
It's hard to point out a list of 'active' Avengers in this run, because of the changes Captain America made to their usual protocol (the classic six-person roster), but these are the characters who fought under the Avengers banner for some or all of this run:
  • Captain America
  • Thor
  • Quasar (although he spent much of his time sitting out or just missing the team)
  • She-Hulk
  • Gilgamesh
  • Black Panther
  • Namor
  • Sersi (she joined somewhere in here)
  • Scarlet Witch (I'm pretty sure she stayed with the West Coast team)
  • Hank Pym (red jumpsuit era; also West Coast)
  • Wasp (West Coast?)
  • Falcon (showed up out of nowhere, disappeared right after)
  • Vision
  • Black Widow (for one issue)
  • Hellcat (for one issue)
  • Wonder Man (West Coast)
  • Spider-Man (joined team for one adventure, and was awkwardly fired at the end of the story, which isn't in this run as Byrne left)
  • Starfox
  • Iron Man
I'm not entirely sure that Byrne brought the stability that people were looking for, as the team was constantly shifting around, and there were no plotlines involving characters' personal lives (although both Vision and Captain America were shown as being doubtful that there was someone other than Tony Stark in the Iron Man armour, which is something he was claiming at the time, apparently).  One thing he did that I appreciated was use some random pages in early issues of his run to set up later storylines.  From the beginning, we kept being shown the old scientist who ended up working with Nebula towards the end of the run.  I liked when writers did this more, but writing for the trade has killed that kind of thing in modern superhero comics.
I was pretty disappointed with the Acts of Vengeance issues.  Granted, these are tie-ins to a larger event which I didn't just re-read, but I was surprised to not reach a resolution in this title (where did that happen?), and to not see any kind of checklist or indication as to what other books I would need to read to get the whole story.  Was there really a time when Marvel didn't over-market their cross-over events?  It's hard to believe, isn't it?
While not as impressive as the run on this title by Roger Stern, John Buscema, and Tom Palmer, it is impressive that the team of Byrne, Ryan, and Palmer were able to put out thirteen straight issues together.  I assume that Byrne left because his superior Namor series launched towards the end of this run (now that's a title I should re-read), and I've noticed that Ryan and Palmer stuck around a fair amount afterwards.  Keeping Tom Palmer as inker on this book for so many years really gave it a consistent feel, and he works well with Ryan, who is a very capable artist.
This was definitely not one of Byrne's more celebrated comics.  His work here is fine, but it doesn't compare to the other books he's so well known for, like Alpha Flight, Fantastic Four, Namor, Superman, or even She-Hulk.
From what I recall, after this run, the Avengers continued to slouch slowly towards 90s terribleness, so my next retro-review will cover the period from Byrne's departure to my own abandoning of the book.