Saturday, August 11, 2018

Nanjing: The Burning City

by Ethan Young

I have always loved war comics.  Unlike war movies, they often allow space to understand characters, and while many of them are steeped in easy cliché, there are a lot more that try to dig into the strength of character it takes to survive military conflict.

Ethan Young's Nanjing: The Burning City, is a very effective war comic.  It focuses on two Chinese men, a Captain and one of his men, who have somehow managed to survive Japan's taking of their city, and after their command structure fled, find themselves stuck in a ruined and occupied city.

They have some difficult choices to make.  Lu wants to make for the Safety Zone, a space reserved for refugees and watched over by Germans who are working with the Japanese Army (this happened in 1937, during the 2nd Sino-Japanese War, before the madness of WWII absorbed this conflict).  The Captain does not think they should do this, and instead wants to try to make his way out of the walled city through a particular gate.

The two men have to continue to make difficult choices as they make their way through the ruins.  They hear some soldiers attack a mother and her daughter, but have to deal with the fact that they can't do a thing to help.  Likewise, they have to turn down an old man's request for help, knowing that to leave him is to kill him.

Young, with his large panels, quiet scenes, and excellent facial expressions, makes this story tense and kind of horrible.  The Captain is a typically stoic military man who is doing all he can to hold it together, although when the pair meets a young family, they have to change their plans.

I really enjoyed this book, which helps to bring this story to a larger audience in North America, where the Nanjing story is not really taught or discussed often.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Violent Love Vol. 1: Stay Dangerous

Written by Frank J. Barbiere
Art by Victor Santos

I will admit that I hadn't been very impressed with the work of Frank J. Barbiere up to this point.  It's not that I thought he was a bad writer, it's just that nothing that I'd read by him had really clicked for me, and I was pretty indifferent to seeing his name on a project.  I do like Victor Santos's art though, so when I saw that their Violent Love began with a $10 trade, I felt that it would be a good idea to get it.

The book begins with a framing sequence that has a retired US marshal watching a young girl for her mother.  The girl shows interest in one particular case of the marshal's, that of Daisy Jane and Rock Bradley, a kind of Mickey and Mallory of the early 1970s.  The girl gets the man to tell the story, and it's at this point that Barbiere started to play with my expectations.

I think I expected a pretty straightforward romance and crime story, and found it interesting when the male part of this pairing barely appears in the first half of this trade, and doesn't really show much character until the very end of it.  Daisy is the real star of this book, and we learn what has led her to a life of using crime to fund a mission of vengeance.  She is with another man when she first meets Rock, while she hunts for the guy who ruined her life.

This mission leads to a bloody conflict with La Jauria, a cartel that employs some very colourful assassins.  Santos is great at both character work and at portraying some pretty mayhem-filled violent scenes.  I never really grew to like Daisy all that much, and found the revelation that closed off the book to be a little predictable (if probably difficult to explain), but I was completely drawn in by the plot, and now want to get the rest of this series so I can see how it all ends.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Displaced Persons

Written by Derek McCulloch
Art by Anthony Peruzzo

There are just so many good graphic novels out there that it's almost impossible for them to make enough of a splash.  I don't remember ever seeing this 2014 album-sized book being solicited by Image, but did see it on a sale table a while back and figured, because of writer Derek McCulloch's Gone to Amerikay OGN, I'd give this a chance.  It's really pretty good, so I'm glad I did.

Displaced Persons is a multi-generational family drama set in San Francisco.  It tells the story of the Price/Abramowicz family, focusing on three eras, with a few forays into other times and places.

The first third of the book is more or less a straight-forward private eye story, as Garland Price is hired to look for a missing heiress, and discovers some weird goings on in the 1930s.  After that, we move into the late 1960s, as Garland's two grandsons, one a cop and the other a little shady, find themselves in conflict with one another.  Later still, in the 1990s, we check in on one of Garland's great grandchildren as she deals with an abusive relationship.

There are some constants to this story - the family has remained in the same house throughout the century, and there is a recurring theme of people disappearing.  Much of this book is about examining the way the people left behind cope with those losses.

McCulloch very lightly uses a magical realist touch in this story that helps link the various strands together, and provide it with its odder moments.  The plot fits together nicely by the end, explaining the slightly confusing opening, and the characters stand out as being distinct.

The art, by Anthony Peruzzo, is fine, but not terribly memorable.  I like the way the book is coloured monochromatically, with each era being given a different tint.  Beyond that, Peruzzo's work is a little unfinished looking, but still manages to tell the story well.

This book worked very well overall, and I'm saddened that I didn't hear more about it when it was first published.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Sally Heathcote Suffragette

Written by Mary M. Talbot
Art by Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot 

I'll be the first to admit that I knew almost nothing about the struggle to gain women the vote in Great Britain.  I'm a little more familiar with the Canadian struggle, which to my knowledge, was neither so protracted, nor so bloody.

In Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, Mary M. Talbot uses a fictional character to explain and explore the various and fractious groups that fought for decades to get the vote, and the beginnings of some respect as equals, for women.  We meet the upper class women who threw themselves into the movement, as well as some of the lower class women, like Sally, who joined them and sacrificed much to gain enfranchisement.

Beyond demonstrating and publishing newsletters, the women used violence to further their cause.  I was surprised to see campaigns of window smashing and even the firebombing of the Prime Minister's unoccupied home.  As well, I was surprised to learn about how these women entered into a revolving system of imprisonment, hunger strikes, torturous force feedings, and eventual release, only to start all over again at the next possible demonstration.

Talbot's Sally has a strong narrative voice, and reports as much on the internecine rifts within the movement as on the advancement towards their goals.  Of course, it is the coming of war that led to increased opportunities for women, as men were either away or killed in such numbers that women needed to take on many of their social roles.

The art team of Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot works great.  The washes of colour on high quality paper make this book really stand out, and the artists (I'm not that clear on who did what) imbue each character with a great deal of personality.  No one radiates displeasure like Mrs. Pankhurst.

This was a great book shining a light on a topic rarely seen in comics.

Friday, July 13, 2018

The Private Eye

Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Marcos Martin

When Brian Vaughan and Marcos Martin started serializing The Private Eye on their website, panelsyndicate.com, I started to read it there, and loved it, but my deep aversion to reading books online left me downloading chapters but never actually getting around to reading them.  Luckily, the series was eventually printed as this lovely landscaped hardcover, and I finally got the time to sit and pore over Martin's art the way I prefer to - on paper.

The Private Eye is a pretty cool science fiction detective story.  At some point in the future, the cloud will burst, and everyone's secrets, photos, and search histories will come pouring out, ruining a whole lot of lives.  A while after that, all of American society will become obsessed with privacy, to the point where people adopt 'nyms' and walk around wearing masks all the time.  There will no longer be an Internet, and most interestingly, policing and journalism will meld, with the 4th Estate investigating and prosecuting crime as well as reporting it.

The series is centred around P.I., a paparazzo (independent private investigator) who, when a former client is killed, ends up getting swept up in a conspiracy involving teevee.

The mechanics of the plot are fine, but not that important in a lot of ways.  Vaughan's idea of the future is bizarre but always believable, and his characterizations are spot on, as always.  P.I. is an interesting character, with great t-shirts, and his Internet loving, tattoo sleeved grandfather is a wonderful addition.

Martin is the big hero here though, as he gets to design some incredible looks for people, and is given plenty of opportunity to do some wide-screen action sequences.

This is a very good series, and if you aren't looking for the book, I strongly suggest you hunt down the comics online.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Pervert

Written by Michelle Perez
Art by Remy Boydell

I was a big fan of Island, the comics anthology edited by Brandon Graham and Emma Rios that Image put out a few years ago.  Each issue was guaranteed to have something interesting in it, but one strip that really stood out to me was one about a transgendered sex worker by Michelle Perez and Remy Boydell.

I was pretty happy to see that strips were being collected and added to the rest of this character's story, as The Pervert.
To that end, this book does a lot to normalize, in a wider publics' minds, trans people and sex work.  The main character has friends, sexual partners, and clients, and sometimes those people can be all three things.  She also has to deal with awkwardness at her work when she decides to come out and begin living as a female, and with a level of harassment on the street that is hard to understand.

The story jumps around some, and that works as a way to slowly build up the character and help us better understand her situation.  Boydell's work is simple and straightforward, but often more affecting because of that.  This is a good book.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Grave Diggers Union Vol. 1

Written by Wes Craig
Art by Toby Cypress

I love Wes Craig's artwork, especially on Deadly Class, but when I saw that this new series was being published by Image with him writing, and the consistently interesting Toby Cypress drawing, I was intrigued, but also decided to tradewait the book, as I've been trying to cut down on my pullfile list.  Last week, Craig was at TCAF, so I was happy to buy the book directly from him, and get it signed.

The Gravediggers Union is kind of a poor man's BPRD.  In this world, the men (because they are pretty much always men) who dig graves in cemeteries are also the people who guard the living from zombies, vampires, and other forms of undead malfeasance.  The thing is, lately, things have been getting a lot worse than anyone can remember, with attacks happening with greater frequency and intensity, and with deadly ghost storms showing up all over the place.

This has something to do with an ancient cult called the Black Temple, some elder gods, and a storyline that digs back to mankind's earliest days.  Things don't look good, but the Union itself is more concerned with following protocol, which frustrates Cole, a veteran grave digger who has a family connection to what's going on - his estranged daughter is possibly the prophet that the Black Temple has been waiting for.

I enjoyed the story, and the way that Craig built up some of the characters in the GDU, and established the animosity between Cole and his superior in the union.  I particularly enjoyed Morphea, the witch who Cole turns to for help, despite the fact that it is forbidden for the Union to communicate with witches.

Cypress's art is always a bit of an acquired taste, but I've always liked it.  The colourist, Niko Guardia uses digital washes to denote movement or atmosphere, and that's something that annoys me.  Like the paint splatters in Wytches or the weird lines all over Supreme: Blue Rose, I find it detracts from the story more than it adds, but maybe that's just me being old and traditionalist.  It does seem to be catching on lately, so I'm going to have to deal with it.

This was a good book, and I look forward to checking out the second volume some time.  That's the problem with trade-waiting - it's going to be forever before I get back into this series...

Brass Sun Vol. 1: The Wheel of Worlds

Written by Ian Edginton
Art by INJ Culbard

I became a fan of INJ Culbard's work when he drew The New Deadwardians, one of the last good Vertigo series, and I've always been aware of Ian Edginton's writing, enjoying things like his Hinterkind series, also at Vertigo.  When Titan started publishing Brass Sun as a miniseries, it looked interesting, and then I came across this beautiful oversized hardcover at a good price, and was happy to grab it.

Brass Sun: The Wheel of Worlds is a very interesting piece of work.  It's set in a clockwork universe designed and set in motion by a very powerful being, populated with humans.  The various planets circle the titular brass sun, which has been slowly losing power, threatening all life.

The problem is that a great war broke out between the various planets generations ago, and since it ended, they've been left to develop in isolation, denying even the existence of life in other places.  There is a way to fix the sun, using a "key" that has been divided among the different spheres, but the knowledge of it is more or less lost.

On one planet, Hind Leg, a young girl named Wren is given the knowledge that her grandfather has been compiling in secret, and when he is arrested and killed, she has to set out to try to save everyone.  Along the way, she meets one of the priests who live and toil in the spars between the planets, and he assists her.  Together, they begin to travel to the different strange worlds, gaining allies and enemies as they go.

INJ Culbard's minimalist art works well here, as he creates strange and interesting cultures, all sharing the clockwork, steampunk aesthetic that the universe was designed with.  There's obviously a lot that doesn't make sense here, because the mechanics behind this world are impossible, but it's still a very enjoyable read.  The different worlds that Wren passes through feel like they could sustain a number of different stories, and the character work is impressive.

I'm always a sucker for an overly developed fictional world, and Edginton has done a wonderful job of building this universe.  I was a little disappointed to realize that this is just the beginning of a longer story, but I do see that Volume 2 is supposed to be published this month, although I can't find any actual proof of that having happened yet.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Get Naked

Written by Steven T. Seagle
Art by Mads Ellegård Skovbakke, Fred Tornager, Thorbjørn Petersen, Sim Mau, Rebekka Davidsen Hestbæk, Emei Olivia Burell, Andrada-Aurora Hansen, Erlend Jhortland Sandøy, Ingvild Marie Methi, Thomas Vium, Christoffer Hammer, Aske Schmidt Rose, Silja Lin, Angelica Inigo Jørgensen, Tina Burholt, Hope Hjort, Bob Lundgreen Kristiansen, Cecilie "Q" Maintz Thorsen, Patricia Amalie Eckerle

As I've mentioned recently, I've long been a fan of Steven T. Seagle's comics work.  Also, confession time, I love a nice soak in heated water, and don't often care if there are other people around while I do it.  Therefore, Get Naked, Seagle's new book of "graphic essays" about coming to terms and experimenting with social nudity appealed to me.

Seagle has described this book as being in the style of Spalding Grey or David Sedaris's autobiographical essays, and while that's a fair comparison, what makes this book incredibly interesting is the way in which his massive list of mainly Nordic collaborators have chosen to interpret and present his words visually.

Every essay in this book is set in a different city, and concerns a time when Seagle ended up getting naked in front of other people (mostly physically, but occasionally emotionally).  We see him have touristic mishaps in a small Czech town, find his way into a mixed-gender nude swimming complex in Berlin, enjoy a nude celebrity encounter in a Korean spa in LA, and stress out about having to get naked with some comics fans in the showers after a soccer game in Spain.

Many of these stories are pretty funny, especially as they deal with a very common form of neuroses that just about everyone can relate to at some level.  It's interesting that Seagle is determined to become more comfortable in his own skin, despite some awkward experiences.  For a while, I was confused as to why he keeps returning to his fear of nakedness, but then it's revealed that he has to take up swimming for health purposes, and things become a little more clear.

In the final analysis, this book can also be seen as an exploration of one of the ways in which America is so different from the rest of the world, in terms of its discomfort with nudity.  In the countries that Seagle visits (Japan, Korea, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Australia, Estonia, Czech Republic, and others), no one is too hung up on their appearance, nor are they as terrified of having someone catch a peek at them as Americans (and, often, Canadians) seem to be.  Seagle, who travels extensively for his animation work, and to appear at conventions, never seems to miss an opportunity to experience local customs, and that's pretty cool.

This book feels liberating in a number of ways, and features some terrific artwork by such a large number of collaborators.  Some of the chapters are very detailed artistically, while others are loose and very cartoony.  At times, the writing and art styles didn't exactly match, but in most cases they were very complimentary to one another.  Each chapter opens with a "travel poster" by Emei Olivia Burrell, and these were gorgeous.  I could easily see them framed and hanging in spas all over the world.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Genius

Written by Steven T. Seagle
Art by Teddy Kristiansen

Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen are a favourite comics pairing of mine, almost on the same level as Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, if not as prolific.  They've worked on some incredible comics together, such as House of Secrets, It's a Bird..., and The Red Diary, but I somehow never learned about Genius, this slim graphic novel that came out in 2013.

Genius is the story of Ted, a theoretical physicist who has gone years without an idea worthy of publication, a prerequisite for him continuing in his job.  At the same time that Ted worries about his employment, things are starting to get out of control at home.  His wife is getting sick, and needs to be able to access his health care.  His teenage son is becoming ever more interested in girls, and his daughter feels more and more out of place.

Ted's father in law, who suffers from dementia, has been holding onto a secret of Albert Einstein's ever since he worked as a guard for the great man after the Second World War.  Ted becomes obsessed with the notion that this knowledge could put his life back on track, but is unsure how he can extract it from the bitter and confused old man.

Seagle and Kristiansen tell a quiet and muted story in this book, aided by Kristiansen's muted colour palette, and his minimalist art.  These characters come alive, and much of the story stuck with me after reading it.  Middle age is portrayed as a reckoning, a coming to terms with the extent of personal limitations, and the story feels very timely in an era where even middle class employment feels as precarious as everyone's health.  It's not a cheerful book, but it is kind of affirming.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Eternal

Written by Ryan K Lindsay and Eric Zawadzki
Art by Eric Zawadzki

Black Mask has become one of the most exciting and interesting publishing house over the last couple of years, and one that is very hard to pin down.  I somehow didn't know that Eternal was coming out, and so its appearance on the shelf at the comic store this week was a nice surprise.

Eternal is a Northern European story in the tradition of Northlanders, Black Road, or Viking.  A small settlement is populated only by women and children after the men left and never returned.  As such, they've become the target of brigands and an evil sorcerer named Bjarte.

Luckily, they are protected by Vif, a shieldmaiden and leader who has honed the women into an effective and aggressive fighting force.  They take the fight to Bjarte, although the consequences of that are not what they were looking for.

The writer of the original story, Ryan K. Lindsay, had envisioned this as a smaller story, but the artist, Eric Zawadzki, of the exceptional Black Mask book The Dregs, expanded the story, adding longer scenes and many rich visual elements, really making the story his own.

And it is because of Zawadzki that you would want to buy this affordable OGN.  He excels at grizzled and dirty characters, and portrays the landscape beautifully.  Dee Cunniffe's colours add so much to this book.

I really liked this comic, and look forward to reading it again and poring over Zawadzki's art.  I would love to see him collaborate with Brian Wood on another book like this again soon.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Americatown

Written by Bradford Winters and Larry Cohen
Art by Daniel Irizarri

It's crazy to think that this terrific graphic novel started being published in the summer of 2015, considering how well it seems to be responding to the events of 2017.

Americatown, written by a couple of TV writers, is about undocumented immigrants from America eking out a life for themselves in Buenos Aires, having to deal with ruthless smugglers, heartless Immigration officers, and an orange-skinned mayor who is staking his reelection campaign on showing "tough love" to people who are in the country illegally.

The story is set in the near future (Bruce Springsteen is a very old man) and, as inequality and climate change have worked hand in hand to erode living standards in the US, many people find they have no choice but to risk their lives to arrive in Argentina, where the lucky ones subsist by working multiple jobs and living in shared apartments.

Owen Carpenter is a new arrival, but he's had some help getting there.  His son has started working for Tonto, an American Native who runs a successful smuggling ring.  While Owen and the people he travelled with are waiting in a safehouse, La Migra raids them, and Owen and his son, Derek, are able to escape, running over an officer in the process.

Derek gets nabbed, and ends up in prison, while Owen tries to figure out how things work in Buenos Aires's Americatown.  He finds jobs and friends who are willing to help him, and puts a plan into action to try to reunite his family.

This book is a very compelling read.  The inversion of having privileged Americans selling hot dogs on the street and complaining that they can't celebrate the Fourth of July openly is a novel one.  It draws attention to the plight of migrants, but also raises some much needed warnings about where the world is headed.

Winters and Cohen put together a tight story, although I thought that the ending was a little needlessly ambiguous (maybe I'm just tired though).  Irizarri's art is very nice, and I especially like the little ways in which he introduces extrapolated versions of modern technology.

Apparently the serialized version of this series got cut short, with half the run only appearing online, but this handsome hardcover is probably the best way to read the story anyway.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Solstice

Written by Steven T. Seagle
Art by Moritat

Solstice first entered the world as a three-issue miniseries in 1995 that was never finished because its publisher went bankrupt.  It was completed and published as a trade paperback in 2006, but was then reworked a little, and published again as a hardcover in 2016.

I've been a fan of Steven T. Seagle for quite a while, but had never noticed or heard of it until I came across it for the first time.  Moritat is a great artist, although the original 2/3 of this book date from when he used to go by his actual name, Justin Norman.

The book is told, in an ever-shifting narrative, by Hugh Waterhouse, who has been dragged into the jungles of Chile to search for the legendary fountain of youth.  Russ Waterhouse is a truly terrible person - he's a rich bully who has dragged a number of people into his lifelong obsession, which has become more pressing since he has developed terminal (yet symptom-free) cancer.

The story jumps all over the place, as Hugh describes his childhood, and two earlier expeditions to Arctic Canada and to Siberia, both of which came with great risk to his body and mind.  The Chilean expedition is no different, as Russ barrels through, and the group attracts the attention of some (kind of stereotypically rendered) indigenous groups.

Moritat's art is pretty nice throughout.  His art reminds me a little of Tim Sale's here, which made me think a few times of his book with Seagle, The Amazon.  The real draw is just how well Seagle builds up the two Waterhouse mens' characters, adding layers as he goes to make the ending a little more poignant.

I'm glad I picked this up - I really enjoyed it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Killer Vol. 4: Unfair Competition

Written by Matz
Art by Luc Jacamon

I remember being very impressed with the first Killer mini-series, when Archaia first started published translated versions of the French series.  It had a tight plot and I loved Jacamon's art.  I was also intrigued by the title character, who floated through the world as an expert assassin, and who doesn't think much of people, or connect to them.

I followed The Killer through his next two miniseries, but when Archaia was bought by Boom!, either they never published this fourth volume as a mini, or I somehow missed it.

It was good to return to these characters, but the storyline in this volume is pretty unfocused and a little unbelievable.  The Killer's drug connected friend decides to diversify, what with the drug cartels becoming too murderous, and decides to start an oil exploration company in Cuban territory that really irks the United States.

The business stuff, even when the wheels are greased with drug money, seems just too easy and quick in the context of the story, and there is a definite lack of suspense or danger to this story.  There are places where things wake up, but in the final analysis, this series became a case of diminishing returns.

Jacamon's art remains a real high point, but this volume incorporates a lot more photography than the previous one.  There is one more volume in this series, which was published last winter, but I'm not sure that I'm all that interested in reading it.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

RAID.ONE

edited by Rob Coughler and Ramón Pérez

RAID, the Royal Academy of Illustration and Design, is a Toronto comics studio, and home to Francis Manapul, Ramón Pérez, Gibson Quarter, Ian Herring, Irma Kniivilia, Nimit Malavia, Taran Chadha, Anthony Falcone, Scott Hepburn, Gabe Sapienza, Marcus To, Eric Vedder, Joe Vriens, Tri Vuong, and Tonci Zonjic.

The studio got its start fifteen years ago, when it consisted of Cameron Stewart, Kagan McLeod, Ben Shannon, and Chip Zdarsky, and when, if we believe Chip's introduction, its acronym stood for Racists Against Impaired Driving.  They all left over the years, making way for the talented list above, who have now put together this very handsome and well-designed anthology, which debuted at Fan Expo this year.

RAID has been bubbling away in the Toronto scene for some time, with many of its members being regular attendees at local comics shows.  They released an anthology comic for Free Comic Book Day this last year, but it is with this book that their diversity, versatility, and collective talent really shines through.

As with any anthology of this size, there is something for everyone, and some stuff that doesn't resonate with every reader.  I was pleased to see another chapter in Ian Herring and Daniel McIntyre's Junior Citizens, a series I've liked since I picked up an issue at TCAF a few years back.  Marcus To's story, Peaceful, shows artistic depth not usually seen in his Marvel and DC work.  Likewise for Francis Manapul's story, which has his usual close eye for layout and design, but more heart than I find in his DC writing.

Pérez closes out the book in fine style, with a mostly silent story about a clown that reminds me of his wonderful work adapting Jim Henson's A Tale of Sand.

The best story in this book though, is Tonci Zonjic's 'Not Dead', which has a pair of scavengers working their way through a debris field in space.  Zonjic told a similar story in the FCBD book, as he explores themes of isolation in the future.  This story stuck with me more than the others.

In all, this is a gorgeous book filled with top and emerging talent.  I would love to see more collaboration between these creators, and more showcases for their work like this.  I highly recommend picking this book up, even if you don't live in the Toronto area (here's the link again).