Monday, April 13, 2015

Wayward Volume 1: String Theory

Written by Jim Zub
Art by Steve Cummings

When Wayward, the new series from writer Jim Zub(kavich), whose Skullkickers is a riot of a book, first debuted, I wasn't sure if I was interested in it or not.  I like Zub's writing on the other title, but that is a more comedic comic, and is something I never thought I'd want to read (it's a really special comic).  This looked more serious, but I wasn't sure if it was going to grab me.  Luckily, Image keeps the price low on first volumes of new series when they are published in trade, and since I was standing in front of Zub at a convention, I felt like I had no reason not to buy this.

This series is centred on Rori Lane, a mixed heritage Japanese-Irish teenage girl, who has moved to Tokyo to live with her mother, who she has not seen in a year.  Almost immediately upon landing in Japan, Rori starts to notice reddish lines that connect her to her destinations, that no one else can notice.

On her first night, she is attacked by a trio of kappa, folkloric turtle-creatures that appear much more dangerous than how they are usually depicted.  A strange girl, Ayane, appears to help her out.  As the story progresses, Rori meets two other kids who have abilities, and stumbles across a plot by some other characters from Japanese folklore, who have evil deeds in mind.  It seems that Rori is a weaver, and this has something to do with her mother.

The easiest comparison to make here is to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  We have the inherited abilities, the idiosyncratic group of peers, and a winking acknowledgement of the story's debt to its genre forebears.

This is an engaging read, with nice art, and a strong sense of place.  I think, had I read these issues individually with a month between them, I would not have made it to issue five.  In the trade, there's a better sense of the larger story, but I'm not sure that there is still enough here to really keep me interested for the long haul.  I would think that this book would appeal to teens, but the level of profanity would keep it from be shelved in a lot of libraries where it would be most welcome.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Sculptor

by Scott McCloud

I knew going in that The Sculptor, the new graphic novel by Scott McCloud, was going to be an impressive piece of work, but I was still surprised by the depth of emotion that McCloud imbued his story with.

David Smith is a young artist who has always dreamed of being a successful, famous sculptor.  An early brush with art world fame fell apart because of the prickly nature of David's personality, and since then, his life has been very difficult.  He can't get proper gallery representation, is about to lose his apartment, and is down to his last friend in New York.  His family is all dead, and he has set himself a rigid set of rules to live by (no handouts or charity, ever, for example).

On his birthday, while quietly getting drunk by himself in a touristy diner, David is surprised to run into his great uncle Harry, who has been dead for many years.  As it turns out, Harry is Death, in a rare human guise.  He asks David what he'd be willing to trade for artistic success, and David quickly offers up his life.  They enter into a Faustian bargain where David is given unparalleled artistic ability for two hundred days, at which point he is going to die.  He readily agrees to this, because he is at a point where he values his artistic legacy more than his existence.

Of course, almost immediately, things begin to change for David.  He has the ability to mold rock or steel with his bare hands, allowing him complete freedom in creating shapes and figures.  That same day, though, he becomes the unwitting centre of a street theatre piece, and meets a girl who is going to change his life.

As the book progresses, a few things take place.  First, we begin to suspect that David's artistic problems are more from a lack of having something to say with his art compared to ability; once he create anything he can imagine, he relies on creating representational pieces from his memory that only have meaning for him.  When he holds a show in his apartment, it is likened to a Polynesian gift shop.  Later, he is barred from returning to his apartment after his works crash through the floor, and homeless and in despair, he is taken in by the girl from the performance piece, Meg, who likes to make projects of helping people.

David pretty quickly falls for Meg, although it takes a lot longer for her to begin to reciprocate those feelings for him.  As the book progresses, David becomes more and more aware of his deadline looming, as he searches for artistic and emotional fulfillment.

McCloud plays with a of stuff in this hefty graphic novel.  The magical realism that allows the plot to take place doesn't feel very forced, although at the end I felt things became a little too comic-book.  The base elements of this story - deals with the devil, finding love just before dying, the frustration of the creator who is unable to create - are not new, but McCloud mixes them very nicely.

His characters feel very real.  David has always been a difficult person, especially after losing his parents and sister at a young age, and having to rely on himself in a very hostile world.  His blind adherence to rules he's set out for himself, and his penchant for speaking plainly to people in positions of influence have put him where he is, and he does not have the tools to get himself out of his situation on his own.  Meg is equally complex - endlessly generous, she suffers from depression and refuses to take medication for it.

McCloud literally wrote the book on graphic storytelling, so it's no surprise that this book is beautifully laid out and illustrated.  He makes interesting use of panel borders, keeping a traditional page structure for most of the book, but bleeding to the edges of the page during scenes of great emotion or stress.

In all, this is a very powerful piece of work.  McCloud really twists the knife towards the end, and while I don't love everything about the conclusion (which, again, gets a little too super-powers/comic bookish), I did feel a genuine ache for these characters upon closing the book.  Read this.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Rachel Rising Vol. 2: Malus

by Terry Moore

With this second volume of his latest series, about a young woman who doesn't seem able to stay dead (despite giving it a couple of very good goes, unintentionally, in the first volume), Moore gives a much clearer picture of what is going on in the town of Manson.

It seems that the town once had a witch problem, and now Lilith, the first woman (remember her from Sandman?) is working to exact her revenge on the town for something that happened three hundred years before.  Malus, a demon, has been working with her, but also working towards his own ends.

As for Rachel, the undead hero of this book?  I don't want to spoil what her deal is.

As is always the case with Moore's work, character development is front and centre, and he's done a great job with characters like Rachel, her friend Jet (who now also can't die), and Rachel's Uncle Johnny, who is laid up in the hospital.  Also, as is often the case, Moore's male characters are a little less nuanced, but I like the way people like Earl, the assistant mortician who is in love with Jet, and Dr. Siemen, the kindly doctor who keeps the body of his long-dead wife in his kitchen, round out the cast of this book.

Moore's art and draftsmanship are always very nice, and it's interesting to see him take what is, on the surface, a story about pretty ordinary-looking people, and twist it around to the point where demons are believable on the page.

My only complaint is with how quickly each of these trades read.  I probably should have waited until the series was finished, and collected into a nice chunky omnibus...

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice

Written by Mike Carey
Art by Peter Gross, Kurt Huggins, Al Davison, Russ Braun, Shawn McManus, Dean Ormston, and Gary Erskine

I've had a complicated relationship with The Unwritten, the long-running Vertigo series by Mike Carey and Peter Gross.  The first arc or so didn't do much for me, but I stuck with the title out of faith in the creators, and it soon became one of my favourite Vertigo titles.  Somewhere, along the way though, I lost interest in the comic, as it became a little too lost under its own weight.  A disastrous cross-over with Fables (that wasn't actually a cross-over, since it only happened in the one series) followed by a relaunch with a price increase was enough to get me to stop reading the book.

Somewhere in there, this graphic novel was published, but I guess I didn't even notice.  This is an interesting book, clarifying one aspect of the series, and diving into another aspect which has been largely ignored.

This book is split between two stories.  Wilson Taylor, author of the Tommy Taylor books, and father to Tom Taylor, writes in his journal about the first couple of years, when he managed to have his first novel published on the same day as his son's birth.  We learn about how he managed to manipulate his mother into leaving Tom's life, and how he arranged to keep his real son tied in the public consciousness with his fictional son.

The majority of this book tells that story that is in that first Tommy Taylor novel.  We learn about his parents' death, and how he ended up being raised in the kitchen of a school for wizards.  We learn that he doesn't have the 'Spark', the precursor to a magical education, and we meet his close friends.  Eventually, the Conclave, a group of powerful wizards, decide to raise the ship that his parents died on, as they tried to transport wild magic to the school.  Bringing the vessel also brings with it Count Ambrosio, an immortal vampire.  It goes without saying that it's up to Tommy and his friends to save the day.

The dual nature of this story is interesting, but I'm not sure that a reader new to these characters would have much of a clue as to what's going on in the Wilson Taylor sections.  Although there are passing nods to Leviathan, the whale-spirit that lives off fiction in the regular series, no mention is made of the Cabal, or why Wilson is immersing young Tom in a sensory deprivation tank.  Long-time readers are rewarded with this fleshed-out timeline, but I think the Wilson sections of this book would feel inconsequential to anyone else.

The Tommy story is enjoyable, in a YA kind of way.  It does help to understand the bigger picture of this whole series to know Tommy's story, and see how it parallels and differs from the Harry Potter stories that it was clearly roughly based upon.

I found the approach to art in this book pretty interesting.  Peter Gross provided layouts for the whole book, and gave it a consistent look, but the various finishers added their own voices to the mix.  The only pages I found I could identify were Dean Ormston's, as his work is always pretty individual.  This approach worked well to distinguish the Wilson pages from the Tommy ones, and to set apart different sections of Tommy's story.

I'm glad I read this book, and it does have me interested in picking up the last half-dozen or so issues of the second volume of Unwritten.  Carey and Gross do great work together; I just wish this series hadn't gotten so bogged down that it lost me.


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

Smoke/Ashes

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.

Smoke


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


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.