Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Hellboy Project: B.P.R.D. Vol.8: Killing Ground

Written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi
Art by Guy Davis

What I like best about BPRD is the strong focus on the characters and their interactions with each other.  This volume gives us more character development and change than any previous three volumes put together, as the makeup of the team shifts again, and some secrets get revealed.

Johann is now inhabiting one of the soulless bodies that Abe found in Indonesia, and he has become a bit of an unstoppable hedonist in the bargain, which has caused him to completely ignore his responsibilities to the team.  Liz is crippled by her ongoing dreams in which she speaks with a mysterious stranger who seems to know a lot about what the future holds.  She really only feels safe now when she is with Panya, the immortal Egyptian mummy woman.

And then there is Daimio, the central figure of this arc.  Since he first arrived, there have been a number of questions about his background, and the mysterious Asian man who provides him with massages and other strange-looking treatments.  All of this is explained, as Daimio runs afoul of the Wendigo character introduced in the previous arc.

This is a pretty exciting and fluid story, with typically brilliant Guy Davis art.


Written by Glenn Eichler
Art by Nick Bertozzi

First Second really are unique publishers, putting out books that are quite different from the vast majority, and most minorities, of the comics world.  Stuffed is a very good example of what I'm coming to think of as the First Second house style (including books like Life Sucks and Refresh, Refresh), which to my mind consists of a well-told story about relationships (more likely to be familial than romantic) with some sort of unique twist or novel approach to it.

In Stuffed, our protagonist is Tim Johnston, a typical suburban nice guy family man.  He learns that his cantankerous and rather unliked father has died, and has left him very little.  While managing his estate, Tim learns that his father had held on to his museum of oddities, which had not been in operation for over twenty years.

Tim begins to obsess over one item in the museum - a statue of an African 'Savage', which the father had used to terrify Tim as a child.  He feels that the statue is of actual historic merit, and attempts to donate it to a museum.  As this process begins, he learns that the statue is in fact a stuffed, or taxidermied (I don't think that's a word) African man.  Tim now feels strongly that the Savage (now called the Warrior) should be repatriated, and works with an African-American curator to achieve this.  Things are going well, when Free, his half-brother arrives on the scene.

Free is the type of guy who should be played by Bill Murray.  He is an aging hippie who has a scar on his forehead from his self-trepanation experiment.  Free (née Ollie) mucks things up, and is the cause of much of the humour in the book.

And this book is quite funny.  There were more than a few scenes that were surprisingly amusing, as the two estranged brothers come to terms with the memory of their father and their own resentments towards each other.  This would make a great movie.

Bertozzi's art works really well here, as the story is perfect for a cartoon-style approach.  His dream sequences are quite funny.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The System of Defecting

by Suki Kim

I love reading about North Korea.  There is something so peculiar about the country's very continued existence in today's world, that I find irresistible.  I'm always most interested in articles or stories that tell of peoples' daily lives, although tales of escape and integration into the modern world also interest me.

In Suki Kim's new article, she travels to Yanji, the Chinese town on the North Korean border, to interview new refugees and the brokers who help them escape.  The route from North Korea to South runs through China, usually involving long journeys to Mongolia or Thailand before being flown to the South.  Few North Koreans would have the resources or knowledge of such a trip, and so they rely on brokers like Kim Seong Min and Yoo Sang Joon for help in getting where they want to go.

Kim is involved with an elaborate network of churches who fund his efforts, while Yoo prefers to do things completely on his own.  At the beginning of the article, the author meets Sun Ja, a newly arrived defector.  What follows is a loosely structured article that provides a general understanding of the complexities of this whole business.  Some churches seem only interested in helping Christians, while others sometimes hold on to defectors for their own fund-raising and propaganda purposes.

As always with articles about North Korea, this piece only scratches at the surface of an infinitely complex problem, but it does provide some interesting perspectives, and it is highly readable.

Farscape: D'Argo's Quest #1-4

Written by Keith R.A. DeCandido
Art by Caleb Cleveland

Set between the third and fourth seasons of Farscape, this story follows D'Argo as he heads out to track down Macton Tal, his brother-in-law and the murderer of D'Argo's wife.  Working off information he received from the Peacekeepers, he's arrived on the planet T'Lohrcate, where he's just chilling at a Sebacean bar, waiting for Tal to arrive.

Instead of finding his prey, he is instead found by Raxil, the annoying alien drug dealer that starred in the season three episode 'Scratch 'N' Sniff', which was one a huge cult favourite.

Raxil needs D'Argo to work for her as muscle in a Freslin sale, although they quickly end up in enforcement custody, before being used to infiltrate a criminal organization that holds the whole planet hostage.

This is a good, quickly-paced, amusing story.  DeCandido has a good ear for Raxil's speech patterns, and manages to capture the unique mix of anger, nobility, and humour that is Ka D'Argo.  Cleveland's art is very good; he manages to draw the characters convincingly, while avoiding the stiffness of most licensed comics.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

American Vampire #4

Written by Scott Snyder and Stephen King
Art by Rafael Albuquerque

I've been liking this comic a lot, as Snyder establishes the tone and direction of the series, and King fills in the back-story and helps set up the rules and regulations by which this story functions.

In this issue, Pearl faces off against the Euro-Vamps, and recruits a compatriot in her cause against them.  In the back-up, Jim Book and his friends confront Sweet, and things go very badly for him.

As I've mentioned for every issue so far, Albuquerque is turning in some terrific artwork.  In addition to that though, I really appreciate the sense of time and place that the writers and the artist imbue this book with.  I feel like a lot of research was done on the two time periods these stories depict, and I always like that level of authenticity in my wildly impossible stories.

Joe the Barbarian #6

Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Sean Murphy

Grant Morrison's fairy tale story about a hypoglycemic boy flitting between two worlds - his own and a fantasy world where he is a legendary figure, the Dying Boy - is coming close to its end, as Joe finds his way to Hearth Castle, the only place left in the kingdom with light and power, for now at least.

There, he is welcomed by the citizenry who recognize him for his legendary status, and by the flood of refugees who have arrived from the attic.  This issue is filled with some of the toy-based characters we saw at the end of the first issue, and although they are not given important roles in this comic, it is kind of cool to see Murphy's take on the main DC characters like Wonder Woman and Batman, but also on characters from various sci-fi movies, tv programs, and toy lines.

I'll be honest in saying that I'm getting a little bored with the whole 'kid needs to get to the kitchen for a soda but is instead in a fantasy land' plot.  Things are starting to feel a little stretched out or decompressed, like this might have worked better as a six-issue series instead of eight, but then, I do like the way Morrison is writing these characters, especially Smoot, the giant dwarf, and Sean Murphy's art is wonderful.

The Secret History Book 10: The Black Stone

Written by Jean-Pierre Pécau
Art by Igor Kordey

I love that Archaia has sorted out all of their production problems and that this book has become reliably monthly.

With each issue, I've been enjoying this comic more, as the time gap between issues has been shrinking, meaning that the same characters appear in multiple volumes.

This time around, Pécau has set his story in 1926, a year of revolution in many corners of the world.  The first half of the book deals with Saud's conquest of Arabia, with the help of Philby, the player from a few issues ago.  The second half returns us to Itzak, the former apprentice to a rabbi, who is now caught up in the conflict between various groups in early-Soviet Ukraine.  Everywhere around him are Reds, Whites, kulaks, and partisans.  He is following the path of the crooked cross (ie., the swastika), and is pursued by Baron von Sebottendorf, his long-time rival.

Interestingly, this issue didn't feature any of the Archos, the four central characters, instead choosing to focus on their 'players' and operatives, who are seeking new avenues of power.  I love this kind of meticulously researched historical comic, and look forward to seeing Pécau deal with the Second World War, an event he has been anticipating in the comic for some time.

Air #22

Written by G. Willow Wilson
Art by MK Perker

It seems that everyone, including the characters of this terrific Vertigo series, know that the book is coming to an early end.  They seem to mention 'endings' enough in this issue, as Blythe embarks on her final test to become a Hyperprax pilot - she has to circumnavigate the world, following in the footsteps (flightpath?) of her mentor Amelia Earhart.

Of course, this time around, the expectation is that Blythe will succeed where Amelia failed.  Blythe is determined to do it on her own, and not call in the assistance of the friendly Aztec god Quetz.  Of course, the Etesian Front has different goals, as they make their return to these pages.

I've been saying since the series began that I find Air to be a unique and refreshing comic compared to most of what is on the stands these days.  Wilson is using her tale of a slightly neurotic girl's journey to self-actualization as a platform for some interesting notions about the nature of time and our perception of it, and has crafted a terrific example of strong characterization.

Battlefields #7

Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Russ Braun

With the start of this latest Battlefields story, Ennis and Braun return to the story of Anna Kharkova, the female Russian pilot who was the star of their first Battlefields arc.  The war has progressed since the first story, and Anna has changed quite a bit.  She now has a reputation for getting herself into trouble, and has just been transferred to an all-male front line unit.

The story runs like many of Ennis's war stories.  There are toadyish functionary officers, and there's a big battle scene.  Anna is still talking to her close friend, who was killed in the first story.  It's clear that her experiences have hardened her, as is seen when she meets a female mechanic who idolizes her, and treats her with open disdain.

As usual, this is a very competently-told story, with great artwork.


by Hedzoleh Soundz

This is a re-release of Hezoleh Soundz debut album from 1972.  This Ghanaian example of early afro-funk is a lovely album with a large sound.  The band was revolutionary at the time, according to the lengthy explanation of the band's history included in the cd packaging. 

Apparently, Hezoleh Soundz became well known after partnering with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela in 1973, and they released the album 'Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz' together.  As I've never heard that piece of music, I can not comment on its quality.

This album, however, is a great exploration of their sound.  There are large up-beat numbers and quiet pieces.  I have no idea what any of the songs are about (they are in Ghanaian?), this is an album that I have been giving a lot of play to lately.

The Killer: Modus Vivendi #3

Written by Matz
Art by Luc Jacamon

If there's one thing that I feel is lacking in most of the comics that I read, it's a nice learned explanation of things like Western cultural hegemony, and the way in which such things are viewed from the smaller, forgotten corners of the world.

In this issue, our Killer is in Cuba, where his next assignment for his mysterious employers, who he now believes to be CIA, is to assassinate the special commissioner in charge of negotiating oil deals.  Having walked around Havana for a few days, and having reflected on the effects of a half-century of embargoes, and the nature of genocide and the types of excuses it engenders in partner nations, he decides that he doesn't want to kill this man, and turns to the Cuban government for assistance.

This is, as always, an interestingly paced book.  It is both languorous and terse, as the Killer has long periods of downtime before arranging his next hit, yet there is always a sense of urgency in his actions.  The lengthy essay (for want of a better term) doesn't slow down the book at all, but it does make it very dense with information, which is something I appreciate.

Jacamon's art is typically beautiful, and he makes interesting use of digital backgrounds, inserting his characters into the Havana skyline, or using other manipulated photos for establishing shots.

Friday, June 25, 2010

King City #9

by Brandon Graham

King City is just such an easy comic to love.  Graham's inventiveness and strange sense of humour fill each page with whimsy, and his characters are very likable, even if plot is not much of a focus in his work.

In this issue, our Cat Master starts snooping into the Owls' business, meets his friend in the park, and then runs into his ex-girlfriend.  Meanwhile, Max decides to do something about his chalk addiction.

That's about all there is, except for the fact that each page is filled with visual gags, and that there is a King City board game included in the comic (you can see that the cover has the game pieces).

Graham seems to have given up on the idea of the story's pace being dictated by issue size; this issue seems to end at a random place.  It doesn't really matter much to me though, as I just love poring over each over-sized page to take in his brilliance.

Crate Digging: Electric Circus

by Common

It felt like it was time to re-examine Common's much maligned and misunderstood 2002 album Electric Circus, which was mostly produced by the Soulquarians - ?uestlove, J Dilla, and James Poyser, although the Neptunes step in on a few tracks.

The album starts with an innocuous and bland intro, before moving into a nice Dilla track, 'Soul Power'.  'Aquarius' is another strong track, but 'Electric Wire Hustler Flower' is exactly the type of song that led to this album being criticized so heavily.  It's actually a decent piece of music, but I think that 2002 wasn't quite ready for it.

From there, the album moves back and forth through a few different moods.  Karriem Riggins provides a cool beat for 'The Hustle', and then we get the Neptunes's version of 'Come Close', which is a great song, but not as good as the Dilla remix which came out afterwards.

A big part of the problem with this album is that it moves from nice airy optimistic songs like 'New Wave' to countrified bangers like 'I Got a Right Ta', to story-based songs like 'Between Me, You & Liberation'.  It's a little like Common had a vision for the album, one best matched by the barely hip-hop songs like 'Jimi Was A Rock Star', but then got cold feet and had to include some slightly more traditional numbers.

The album ends with 'Heaven Somewhere', a long and lovely piece that features a number of incredible singers like Cee-Lo, Bilal, Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige, and Erykah Badu, before being given over to Common's 'Pops', who always closes his albums with a spoken word piece.

At the end of it, it's easy to see why this album wasn't very well-liked when it was released, but after being allowed to age a few years, it appears to have predicted some of the more spaced out hip-hop of artists like Dudley Perkins and Georgia Anne Muldrow, and is an important piece in the evolution of Dilla and ?uestlove's production.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Hellboy Project: Hellboy Vol. 8: Darkness Calls

Written by Mike Mignola
Art by Duncan Fegredo

I'm not all that sure how much I enjoyed this volume of Mignola's Hellboy series.  It's a different type of book this time around - it's the longest Hellboy story I've read yet, and it has art by the amazing Duncan Fegredo, who draws in in a style that I think I would describe as shabby-Mignola (I mean that in a good way).

Fegredo uses Mignola's usual aesthetic and panel layout, but then roughs up the characters and figures by making the art more scratchy.  It's very effective, and the whole book looks great.

I think it's the story that doesn't do that much for me.  Basically, the various witches that have shown up at different times in the series - people like Hecate and Baba Yaga - are up to their usual tricks, as the Russian folk character attempts to exact revenge on Hellboy for having stolen her eye.  To do this, she employs another deathless Russian folklore character.  There are also appearances by Bromwich, the creepy character from earlier stories, and the pig-creature from Hellboy's underwater adventures.

Personally, I found the story a little hard to follow, but still full of interesting moments and exciting scenes.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

High Moon Vol. 1

Written by David Gallaher
Art by Steve Ellis

This is a book that I really wanted to like more than I did.  It's a Western with werewolves, vampires, Aboriginal spirits, a mechanical golem, steampunk cyborgs, and great art.  It sounds like a slam dunk.  The problem is that the story is not particularly well-explained, the characters not that well developed, and the plot seems more than a little random.

From what I was able to follow, there's some werewolf guy named Eddie Conroy who might or might not be a decent person, who is being hunted by some guy named MacGregor.  There is some stuff with some vampires that have kidnapped a little girl, and when MacGregor, who I thought was going to be the hero of the book, gets killed, Conroy steals his identity and heads off for more adventures.  He somehow hooks up with MacGregor's brother (I think), who is the cyborg guy, and they have another adventure that involves two brothers who want to kill each other or something.  After that, they get called on by a Native girl to go fight some soldiers, the leader of whom is sleeping with the cyborg dude's wife.

The episodic nature of the storytelling doesn't give much time for the big picture to be absorbed.  I don't know what Conroy's all about, and find it hard to keep track of the people that keep filtering into his life.

Ellis's art looks great, although it is very cramped on the small landscaped pages that the Zuda books are being published on.  It often made it hard to follow the action.  I feel like there is a lot of potential in this story, and if you are just looking for some crazy action, this book satisfies.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Luna Park

Written by Kevin Baker
Art by Danijel Zezelj

I was really impressed by this graphic novel.  I have no idea who Kevin Baker is (apparently his novel Dreamland has some similarities to this work) , but I have been a Danijel Zezelj fan for at least ten years, and knew that I would like this book for the art regardless of how the story turned out.

Luna Park is a really interesting story.  It took me a little while to get in to it; the beginning seems to breeze through the opening pages, but as the book progressed, I got wrapped up in its depth and layered use of story telling.

At the surface, Alik is a Russian immigrant scratching out an existence in Brooklyn by working for a minor Russian mobster.  Alik is still nursing emotional wounds he got in Chechnya, where he was a soldier ten years before.  He'd tried to help a woman he was in love with, and it ended badly for them all.

Alik today is in love with a woman with a similar name, who works for Alik's boss's rival, another Russian mobster who is buying up most of Coney Island, including Luna Park.  Alik is a heroin user, and is plagued by dreams of his time in Chechnya, although often the dreams seem to be taking place in the First World War, or during the Russian Revolution instead.

The story quickly becomes more of a historical novel than the crime story that I expected it to be when I started reading, as Baker explores the connection between these dreams and Alik's present, in a manner that totally surprised and pleased me.

Baker's writing, mixed with Zezelj's incredibly moody and evocative artwork, capture a sense of 'Russian-ness' I've only encountered in actual Russian novels before.  They make strong connections between the shabbiness of Coney Island and the desolation of the trenches of WWI France.  Everything is seen through a window of unfulfilled promise, which is very much how Alik has led his life.  Recommended.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hard Time: Season Two #1-7

Written by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes
Art by Brian Hurtt and Steve Bird

Having finished off 'Season One' of this series last week, I quickly dove in to 'Season Two'.  Gerber's teenage prison drama, featuring New Age style mystical powers, was a very interesting experiment in unconventional super powered comics.

Ethan continues to get by in prison, and in this season the adopted parents of his girlfriend try to mount a publicity campaign designed to free him, while a lot of the usual prison stuff also goes on.  Further complicating Ethan's already difficult life is the arrival of a new inmate, known as Cutter.  This guy experiments with scarification as an art form, and somehow has the ability to mess with Ethan's khe chara, his energy or astral form.

Like the previous parts of this series, Season Two gives us very strong character work, in both the writing and in the awesome artwork of Brian Hurtt.  It's a shame the series didn't last longer, but I did like the final issue, which shows us Ethan '49 Years Later', and wraps up all the relevant plotlines.

Addis to Axum

A Mix by Quantic

If you follow this blog, you would have noticed over the last year my growing interest in African music, specifically that of Ethiopia.  Through projects like Oh No's Ethiopium and Mulatu Astatke's work with the Heliocentrics, I developed a taste for the sounds of this unique country, which has only been furthered by my discovery of Astatke's solo work.

This mix cd from Mochilla is a recording of a show from February of 2009, where Quantic performed a dj set, playing the music he found while on a trip to Ethiopia.  The mix, combined into one long track, encompasses many styles of Ethiopian music.

It was easy to recognize some of Astatke's work, but that would be the only thing that I knew.  The liner notes, while providing a good description of what Quantic was up to, do not credit any of the source material (which makes sense, as I'm sure there is no way in which the artists could be reliably compensated).

Some of the pieces played here are very annoying, in that way that the tribal music of a tribe not your own can get under your skin, but much of it is beautiful, haunting, or swinging, and it awakens a desire to learn more about the music of this country.

Odysseus The Rebel

Written by Steven Grant
Art by Scott Bieser

This graphic novel written by comics legend Steven Grant is about Odysseus, the hero of the Trojan War, and his long journey home.  This is not the Odysseus of Homer though, nor is it Eric Shanower's

Instead, Grant tells a very modern, at times metatextual, and frequently funny version of Odysseus's long journey, and his conflict with the gods.  In this story, Odysseus never accepts the will of the gods, instead railing against them at every opportunity.  He is presented as a stubborn man, as is Penelope his wife, who has refused all suitors for years, in the hopes that her husband would return to her.  This hope is echoed in the actions of their son Telemachus, who searches for his father.

Grant makes use of more modern references in his story, and has Odysseus questioning his own place in legend.  There is an acceptance among some of the men and gods in this story that the age of gods is ending, and that people like Odysseus and Achilles will become more a part of a future cultural landscape than they would be.

At its core, this is a story about pride, and the far-reaching effects that pride can have on a people, or a land.  This is a very intelligent adaptation, made all the more so for its deceptive light-heartedness and Bieser's breezy artistic style.

This was a sudden purchase at a used book store, and I'm very glad that I picked it up, as it's one of the better graphic novels I've read lately.  I recommend tracking it down, but it can also be read on-line at the publisher's website.

Four Eyes #4

Written by Joe Kelly
Art by Max Fiumara

I didn't really expect to see another issue of this comic - I had forgotten it was resolicited and didn't order it; it has been more than a year since the last issue came out, and Kelly and Fiumara are both pretty involved in Amazing Spider-Man right now.

Four Eyes is the story of Enrico, a young boy whose dragon-catching father was killed in Depression-era New York, when he went hunting alone for the mobster who raises and fights dragons in an over-sized version of cockfighting.  Enrico has started working for the mobster too, and last issue was involved in his first hunt, which ended badly for him.

This issue is mostly concerned with various people looking to bring Enrico home, and his standing up for his values and new friend.  These first four issues were mostly set-up for a longer series which I now doubt is ever going to be completed, which is too bad, because there is a lot of potential in this series.

I like Fiumara's art a lot on this book.  It's very much like the style he's using in his Spider-Man issues now, and it's a cool mix of manga and cartoon influences.

Tales Designed to Thrizzle #6

by Michael Kupperman

I first came across Kupperman's work in one of the Marvel 70th anniversary one-shots where he drew a story about a Golden Age robot (whose name escapes me right now).  I was amused by his marrying of Golden Age style artwork with a modernist sense of whimsy, and figured I should check out more of his work.

Kupperman's sporadic anthology series feels like the work of someone who is mostly creating to amuse himself.  He plays with a lot of classic comics conventions, and is clearly having a great time with things.

The book opens with the adventures of Jungle Princess, a pink cone-wearing version of Sheena, who publishes a fashion magazine, fights ruthless rhino-traders, and is assisted by a deadly hawk/chim duo.  Other stories include an homage to good drainage, wherein a drainage system upstages a famous actress; and an outer-space adventure story featuring Mark Twain and Albert Einstein.

The comic is also filled with one-page strips that riff off of established classic comics like Richie Rich, and various spoof ads for things like The Dick Van Dyke Institute of Cockney Graverobbing.  There is also a page of wallpaper designs that I thought were terrific (Roses and Noses being one).

Kupperman is a major satiric talent, and this is a very well-designed book.  Now comes the hard part, tracking down all the back issues.

Fables #96

Written by Bill Willingham
Art by Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, and Andrew Pepoy

While this exploration of Snow White and Rose Red's pasts is interesting and somewhat informative, I would prefer to see more of what's going on with the characters in the present day.

In this issue, Snow and Rose's dead mother continues to tell Rose Red all of the things that she didn't previously know about her relationship with her sister.  We get to find out about how Snow was sent away to protect her life from the father of her suitor, and we are given a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale, complete with its seven degenerate dwarves.

I understand that it's necessary for Rose Red to finally get rid of the chip on her shoulder through understanding the past, I just feel that it's taking too long.  I guess Willingham is padding out the story a little so that issue 100 can be a momentous one.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Age of Bronze #30

by Eric Shanower

It's been about six months since the last issue of Shanower's epic masterpiece re-telling of the Trojan War appeared on a comics rack, but I have been finding it easier than ever before to dive back into the story, where before I used to find it difficult to keep track of characters.

At this point in the story, the war is raging on slowly in the background, as Shanower turns the spotlight on some of the women of Troy, especially focusing on Cressida, the abandoned daughter of Kalchas, who betrayed Troy to work for its Achaean enemies.  This is about the third issue that has been telling the 'Troilus and Cressida' story, and I have enjoyed the way that Shanower has integrated it into his larger narrative.  The cover is very appropriate, as much of this issue is taken up by Pandarus's efforts and machinations at bringing the two lovers together.

The rest of this issue is concerned with Helen's decision to leave Troy in time for the birth of her child.  There is a great scene in a temple, where we learn a little about the reactions to Helen of the other women of Troy; it's not all that positive.

While I've always found this comic to be interesting, it is the recent shift in focus to the women of Troy that has my attention now.  Women are usually secondary in any telling of this story, which is ironic when you consider Helen's primacy in the whole thing.  It is nice to see so much detail and thought being put into the lives of Trojan women, who suffered so much through that war.

I know it's a tough sell to convince a new reader to pick up a book like this, but Age of Bronze is a brilliant comic, and more people should pick up the trades and give it a try.