Saturday, December 31, 2011

Swallow Me Whole

by Nate Powell

Swallow Me Whole is a pretty surprising and powerful book, that leaves itself open to interpretation in a number of ways.  The book revolves around Ruth, an adolescent girl who lives with her mother, stepfather, stepbrother Perry, and her infirm grandmother, who everyone calls Memaw.

Mental illness runs rampant in this family.  Memaw is kind of senile, although she hints at having had some of her problems for her whole life.  Perry sees a little wizard, who commands him to draw for hours on end.  And Ruth has a thing about insects.  She's been stealing bugs preserved in jars from her school for ages, and constantly rearranges them on her shelves and in her room.  They speak to her, and she tries to make it through each day without stepping on any living thing.

Since much of this book is seen from Ruth's perspective, it becomes very hard to gauge where imagination is giving over to compulsion or delusion, which seems to be Powell's intent.  The story progresses in fits and starts, jumping over chunks of time, and leaving much for the reader to puzzle out.

Powell's art works well in this book.  He makes good use of negative and empty spaces, letting the art swirl in places like Ruth's thoughts do.  In the end, I'm not sure what this book tells us about obsessive compulsive disorder or schizophrenia, but it does portray these illnesses in a manner much less over-blown than most media.  This is recommended.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Texas Thunder Soul 1968 - 1974

by Kashmere Stage Band

Listening to this stuff, you would never come to the conclusion that you are hearing a high school band, unless you read the liner notes.  The Kashmere Stage Band was the greatest high school band in America for a number of years running starting in 1972, when they started winning national competitions.

The band was directed by Conrad O. 'Prof' Johnson, who passed away a few years ago. Eothen 'Egon' Alapatt, who runs Now-Again Records, met Johnson a few times, and made arrangements to put together this excellent package, which includes two CDs and a DVD made up of a documentary about the band, a live TV performance from the 70s, and some footage of Egon going through mountains of records in Johnson's home, which was scheduled for demolition.

Just as he did with his True Soul albums of this year, Egon has preserved some amazing recordings, and made them available to a wider audience than they ever were before.  This band is fantastic.  They cover a lot of the massive funk pieces of their day - 'Do Your Thing', 'Thank You', 'Shaft', 'Burning Spear', among others, but they really kill it on their own piece, 'Kashmere'.

The first disc consists of recordings that Johnson made, most of which he released through his own label, but there are some previously unreleased gems here too.  The second disc has live recordings, none of which had been released before.

This is the type of project that really appeals to collectors, but the first disc on its own is an excellent window into a time when schools and parents valued musical education (and funded it).  It's a great album.

The Unwritten #32.5

Written by Mike Carey
Art by Peter Gross and Dean Ormston

The .5 issues of this book are being used to tell us something about the Cabal, the group of people who have been shaping and using literature, and literacy, for their own purposes for as long as man has been writing things down.  In the previous .5 comic (they alternate with the whole number issues, which tell the current events surrounding Tom Taylor and his small crew) we saw the Cabal operating in Ancient China, and dealing with Gutenberg at the beginning of the printing press.

This issue is different in that it tells one single story, that of Gilgamesh, the great Sumerian king, and his journey with Utnapishtim, an immortal who wants him to slay a great serpent.  It seems clear that Utnapishtim is Mr. Pullman, a regular in the Unwritten cast, and it seems, the person who sets the direction of the Cabal, if not its actual leader. What we learn is that the serpent, Abaddon, or Leviathan, feeds on human stories, hence the choice to use Gilgamesh, who was then one of the most storied people living.

Carey doesn't give us a whole lot to work with here in terms of connecting what we've learned to the purpose of the Cabal.  We do know that Utnapishtim cannot be killed until people no longer know of him, which is why Gilgamesh has him written into his great epic.  What this means for Pullman I don't really know - he's kind of shadowy and unknown in the modern day issues.

Dean Ormston joins Peter Gross on this issue, and it brings to mind their collaborations on Carey's previous long-running Vertigo series Lucifer.  They are definitely a good team.

Spaceman #3

Written by Brian Azzarello
Art by Eduardo Risso

Now that the characters and situation are established, this series is really starting to take off.

Orson is a 'spaceman', a genetically modified human designed for space exploration who now goes from salvage job to salvage job trying to make enough money to pay for his virtual sessions with a call girl, and to buy drugs.  On his most recent salvage, he came across Tara, a young girl who was kidnapped from her celebrity adoptive parents.

Basically, Tara's parents are Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and their reality show about their large blended family is the most popular thing going, getting more views than any news broadcast.

Now Orson is trying to keep Tara safe, but doesn't really know what to do with her.  Her family are looking for her, and we start to get a better sense of the two police officers assigned to her case.  We also learn that someone who has a fair amount in common with Orson is going to be looking for her too.

This series is set in a fully realized future that is not too pretty.  Azzarello's invented forms of speech work remarkably well (I normally hate that kind of thing), and I've grown to really like Orson and the band of urchins he surrounds himself with.  Risso's work is incredible as always.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

DMZ #72

Written by Brian Wood
Art by Riccardo Burchielli

What a perfect way to end a long-running and complex series.  I feel like DMZ didn't receive enough attention over the last few years.  It's been as good as other lionized Vertigo series like Y the Last Man, but has never developed the same sort of vocal, loyal fan base (although we know they are out there - this comic has had remarkably stable, if not stellar, sales).  Now that the series is over, I imagine that people will begin to re-read and re-examine it as a series that, while consisting of speculative fiction set in the future, really captured the zeitgeist of the last six years.

Six years ago, America was embroiled in two costly, and poorly defined, foreign wars, vigorously pursued by its evangelical neoconservative president.  Its housing market hadn't burst yet.  Right-wing church-goers, racists, and crazies hadn't formed the Tea Party.  Wall Street hadn't been occupied.  The military-industrial complex was only ever gaining in influence and power.  Journalism was beginning its decline towards irrelevance in the lives of the common man and woman.  Income disparity was growing, and the country was increasingly split along ideological lines.  Ground Zero was a fresh wound.

DMZ grew out of the sense that, for the first time in a very long time, Americans recognized that their future was not as bright as it used to be.  It was, therefore, easy to accept a not-so-distant future where the country was split in a second civil war.  It also wasn't hard to accept that the country's greatest city would become an epicentre of conflict, tactically advantageous to both sides, but impossible to hold on to, and populated by some of the toughest, most recalcitrant people in the country.

Into this trashed out city, Brian Wood parachuted Matty Roth, a naive and ignorant kid with dreams of becoming a great journalist.  Over the last six years, we watched Matty grow to love and understand his adopted city, as he tried to use his unique position as a celebrity journalist to try to better things for the people of Manhattan.  He screwed up.  A lot.  There were a number of times where I didn't like, or understand Matty.  It's a good thing he wasn't really the main character of the comic; the city was.

As the series evolved and grew, it continued to reflect the times it was being written in.  Parco Delgado, the New York-born man who became mayor and took the political process hostage emerged out of the optimism and excitement that developed while Barack Obama ran for, and became, President.  The Free States was explained and understood in the wake of the national attention given to the Tea Party.  I always felt that Wood was using this series to, very subtly, inform us of the issues of our day.

Through it all though, he told a good story.  As I said, I didn't always like Matty, but I loved characters like Zee (Matty's on-again off-again girlfriend and medic), Wilson (the leader/saviour of Chinatown), DJ Random Fire, the graffiti artist Decade Later, and Amina, the would-be suicide bomber.  And of course, the city.  I've only visited New York a few times, but I feel like I've gotten a better sense of its neighbourhoods and its people through this comic.

This brings me, finally, to this last issue.  Matty narrates it through the introduction to the 15th anniversary edition of his book.  As we read along with a young woman, she travels through the re-built and redeveloped parts of Manhattan that were relevant to the comic.  We see the shrine to Wilson, and the memorial to the victims of the Day 204 Massacre.  It is a very fitting epilogue to the series, and I found it to be an emotional farewell to characters and places I grew to understand.

Riccardo Burchielli has been a huge part of this series's success.  His art has increasingly grown on me over the years, to the point where I am going to miss my monthly dose of his work, but I have to say that the fourteenth page, which is a splash panel of the young woman sitting on the steps of a building at the Day 204 site, is one of the most beautiful things he's ever drawn.

Wood, Burchielli, and the assorted guest artists and editors who have worked on this book over the years should be immensely proud of it.  It addressed some difficult issues, and became a lens through which we could look at our own world.  It also told some damn exciting and gripping stories.

American Vampire #22

Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Rafael Albuquerque

It's great to see Rafael Albuquerque back on American Vampire.  I enjoyed Jordi Bernet's recent work on the title, but Albuquerque is the artist who caused this book to catch my eye in the first place, and things feel right when he's working on it.

With this new arc, 'Death Race', we move into the 1950s, and we meet Travis Kidd, a young and unaffiliated vampire hunter.  We don't learn a whole lot about him, except that he's hunting for the vampire who ruined his life (sounds like Mike Mignola's Baltimore), and takes out any other vampires he comes across in his search.  He has some sort of prior dealings with the Vassals, the vampire-hunting group who we often see in this title and its spin-off, and in this issue, Agent Hobbes (looking a lot like Agent Graves from 100 Bullets) tries to get him to join up with them again.

This issue starts off with an excellent sequence involving Travis's girlfriend and her parents, and it also embraces the teenage 50s, with leather jackets and drag racing in the desert.  Scott Snyder has done a wonderful job of capturing the anxieties and concerns of each era he's set his story in, and that continues to be the case here.

Albuquerque's work is, of course, wonderful.  I look forward to learning how this story ties in with Skinner Sweet's, or with Pearl and Henry's. 

Witch Doctor: The Resuscitation #1

Written by Brandon Seifert
Art by Lukas Ketner

I thought that the first volume of Witch Doctor was a very cool comic - it posits a world where doctors investigate, diagnose, and treat infections and chronic conditions that we usually ascribe to magic.  Things like vampirism, changeling babies, and the other things that populate horror stories all have a medical basis in this comic, although Dr. Morrow uses magic to combat them.  It's a neat take on Dr. Strange, and it works very well in Seifert and Ketner's hands.

This one-shot helps fill in the gap between the end of the first mini-series, and the start of the second, which will be published at some point in 2012.  The comic starts with a familiar image - a man wakes up in a bathtub full of ice cubes with a bandaged wound in his side.  We immediately assume that the man was drugged and had his kidney stolen, but what we learn as the story progresses is that he has, in fact, been given a transplant.  The new kidney has some divine origins, and this poor guy is now involved in an experiment conducted by an unlicensed necromancer.

Luckily, the good Doctor intervenes, and as usual, weirdness ensues.  This comic is pretty funny in parts, and maintains the self-aware nature of the first volume.  Ketner continues to enjoy designing weird and wonderful medical devices, just as Seifert has fun coming up with the explanations for things that the Doctor provides.  Witch Doctor is a good read.

The Guild: Zaboo

Written by Felicia Day and Sandeep Parikh
Art by Becky Cloonan

I came very late to The Guild, Felicia Day's web TV show about a group of strangers who have bonded over an online fantasy game, but once I finally watched it, I was quickly hooked.  Dark Horse published a comic book mini-series a couple of years back (which I haven't read yet), and then started creating a series of one-shots focused on each character in the Guild, which I guess this is the last of (despite the fact that Day's character, Codex, hasn't gotten her own one-shot yet).

This issue is all about Zaboo, the over-mothered guy who caused the Guild to meet for the first time in Season One, when he showed up at Codex's apartment to declare his love for her.  In this issue, we get to see just how he escaped his mother (she makes Tiger Moms and Helicopter Parents look like social services neglect cases).

Much of the issue is designed around computer mini-games, which can increase the reader's XP.  At one point, you have to help Zaboo pack for his escape from home; at another, you have to choose the correct dialogue path that will result in Zaboo getting a bus ticket.  It's pretty amusing.

Of course, all of this works so well because the art on the book is by the incredible Becky Cloonan.  She's long been one of my favourite artists, and this comic helps show how diverse she can be, drawing realistic scenes (the first page is a bit of a hint as to what her Conan could be like) and amusing, cartoonish ones with skill.  I love the double-page spread of Zaboo running through his house.  This is good stuff.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Strangers in Paradise Pocket Book Vol. 1

by Terry Moore

I know I'm very late in coming to this comic, but I'd never thought it would interest me before, for much the same reasons that I've never read Love and Rockets.  It just never seemed like my thing, but I really enjoyed Moore's Echo, and I'm always looking to expand what 'my thing' is when it comes to comics.

These Pocket Editions are a great way to read Strangers in Paradise.  This first volume contains sixteen issues of the series - the three-issue first volume, and the first thirteen issues of the second.  The series revolves around a strange love triangle.

Francine has trust issues.  Her relationship with Freddie Femurs (the fourth point on the triangle, if that makes sense) has gone nowhere, and Francine would be a total mess if it weren't for her best friend Katchoo (Katina Choovanski).  The problem is that Katchoo has a very secretive past, and is herself in love with Francine.  Then David enters the picture.  He's madly in love with Katchoo, and she is beginning to have feelings for him too.

Then Katchoo's past begins to catch up with her, in the form of a gangster madam who is looking for some missing money.  Lots of other things happen in this comic, but that's the very condensed explanation of things.

This book moves wildly from light comedy to serious drama, often unpredictably.  Any scene with Freddie, who despite being engaged to someone new, still has feelings for Francine, becomes ridiculous in no time, but other parts of the book can shift quickly from one extreme to another.  There are some lengthy prose sections which I think really took from my enjoyment of the book, but otherwise, I think the Strangers in Paradise have found a new fan, and I've found a new series to collect.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Xenoholics #3

Written by Joshua Williamson
Art by Seth Damoose

It's now very clear that there is a lot more going on in Xenoholics than there seemed at the beginning of the series.  This book is basically about a group of people who enjoy being abducted by aliens, who had formed a support group.  The professor who ran their sessions went missing, and then a government agent dressed all in white came after them.  The group hid out in a strange sex club for alien fetishists, before a larger group of Men in White showed up.

This issue opens with a massacre at the sex club, followed by the rescue of two of the group members by actual aliens.  Now, as this issue has progressed, we learn a number of things.  The government believes that only one member of the group was actually ever abducted, and this person is a 'key' to something (it's a little Ghostbusters-esque).  The professor saw this group as an experiment, but in what, we don't know.  The aliens don't appear to be malevolent; instead, it is suggested that they are well-known to the government, and the aliens are actually the 'good guys'. 

Williamson has set up a lot of material in just three issues, and I look forward to continuing to explore this world with him.  The stylistic and thematic comparisons to Chew are easy to make; if you are a fan of that book, you will probably like this one quite a bit.  Seth Damoose's cartoony, stubby people are growing on me.

Shuffering and Shmiling / No Agreement

by Fela Anikulapo Kuti and the Afrika 70

I love the Knitting Factory re-releases of classic Fela Kuti albums.  They combine two LPs onto a single CD, and reproduce the original album covers, front and back, with a paper insert that explains a little about the different tracks and the circumstances around their writing and recording.

This particular CD contains Shuffering and Shmiling & No Agreement,which were originally released in 1978 and 1977, respectively.  'Shuffering and Shmiling' is a twenty-one minute song (originally split between the two sides of the record), wherein Fela decides to spare his usual targets, the government and the army, and instead attack Christianity and Islam, which he saw as social imports brought from colonial masters.  He was opposed to the notion of suffering through life on Earth to achieve heavenly rewards.  What makes this work as a message is the catchiness of his rhythm, making his words more palpable.

'No Agreement' could be an anthem for the Occupy Movement, with it's call and response repeating of the phrase "No agreement today, no agreement tomorrow."  Fela was not known for a willingness to compromise with anyone or anything, especially the poor social conditions of Nigeria in the late 70s.  It's a fantastic track, clocking in at fifteen minutes.  This is the same length as the third piece on this disc, 'Dog Eat Dog', which is a lovely instrumental track.

There are a large number of albums in this series, but I really do feel the need to try to collect them all...

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Activity #1

Written by Nathan Edmondson
Art by Mitch Gerads

I loved Greg Rucka's Queen & Country (which I was admittedly late to discover). I also got into the TV show The Unit for a while.  This new comic (I'm not sure if it's a mini-series or an on-going; Image is pretty bad about telling us things like that) fills the gap that those two forms of entertainment has left.

The Activity is about a super-secretive group of operatives recruited from various military and intelligence organizations in the American government.  The book opens with them executing a perfect snatch-and-grab of someone we assume is a Mexican drug lord.

The team returns to their home base, where we learn that they recently lost a member, before they are sent to Rome for a new mission, with their new replacement.  The mission is pretty straightforward - they have to cover the tracks of a CIA operative who had to abandon his cover by burning down his office and scrubbing his car - but it allows Edmondson space to introduce the characters a little, and establish the book's parameters.

There is some question as to the loyalty of the new member, dubbed Fiddler in typical, annoying code-name speak.  Other than that, we are given next to no information about what this team really does, or who their masters are.  What is clear though, is that this is going to be a very cool comic.

I like Gerads's art a great deal.  He handles complex action scenes, like the one in the Mexican restaurant, very well, and differentiates the characters nicely.  Edmondson has proven his ability to write compelling spy-based comics (read Who Is Jake Ellis?), and I feel that this comic is already heads above his work on Grifter at DC.  Check this out.

Fables #112

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

Ah, the Christmas issue - proof that time really does move forward in comics.  This is an extra-sized issue, something I didn't notice until I was more than half-way through and started wondering how Willingham and company had packed so much into one comic.

Anyway, the Fables return to the Farm just in time for Christmas, and after a large party, Rose Red is visited by a talking cricket (I think it's safe to assume this is Jiminy), who takes her on a Christmas Eve journey to meet with three 'Paladins of Hope'.  Apparently, a while back, when every issue was taken up with Rose Red's conversation with the ghost of her mother, she decided to become a paladin of Hope.  I don't remember that part happening exactly, so I was a little confused until I decided to just go with it.

The three paladins (there used to be fourteen) each represent a different aspect of hope.  Santa Claus, for example, represents the 'hope for justice', which is different from actual justice.  The Rose Red part is cool, in a Christmas Carol sort of way.

Willingham also checks in on Bigby and Snow and their family, who while still absorbing the news that their daughter will be the new North Wind, decide to have a quiet family Christmas at home.  Also, Nurse Spratt is laying a trap for the Fables back in Fabletown.

I still think it's rather strange that Frau Totenkinder (I know that's not her name anymore, but I forget what she's called now - Briarthorn?) is back, but no one is talking about it.  Perhaps we'll get there eventually.  Fables feels a little between big stories right now, and the next issue is going to be an interlude, but I feel confident that Willingham has something up his sleeve for 2012.

The Li'l Depressed Boy Vol.0: Lonely Heart Blues

Written by S. Steven Struble
Art by Ed Tadem, Lindsay Jane, Sina Grace, Jose Garibaldi, Chris Fenoglio, Zach Trover, Kristopher Struble, Jim Mahfood, Kanila Tripp, Roman Muradov, Justin Stewart, Sam Kieth, Jim Valentino, Scott Morse, Evan DiLeo, and Jamie McKelvie

I've been getting a lot more enjoyment out of the Image series The Li'l Depressed Boy than I expected.  Each issue has an effervescent quality to it though - it's utterly charming and fun to read, but it's usually a very quick read, which doesn't stick with me after I finish it.  Part of the problem I've had with the comic is that I don't fully understand a few fundamental things - like why is LDB a rag doll while everyone around him is a normal human being?  Also, why is LDB called the LDB?  He hasn't seemed all that depressed, at least not in the days leading up to his current state of confusion surrounding Jazz, the girl he likes.

I figured that this 'Volume 0' trade, collecting the web comics where LDB got his start, would shed some light on all this.  It doesn't really answer any of my questions, but it does provide a little more back-story and clarity on just who LDB is. And yah, he seems pretty depressed.

Many of the stories here are simple slice-of-life strips, wherein very little happens.  LDB microwaves food, or puts away Christmas decorations.  Nothing special really.  There are some strips that hint towards a dead girlfriend, or at least a dead crush, but really, we don't get to understand just who he is.

There is a long list of artists who worked on this character before Sina Grace became the dominant artist.  It's always a treat to see someone like Jim Mahfood working on a comic, but I think I was most impressed with the contributions of Chris Fenoglio, who I'm otherwise unfamiliar with.

This book could serve as a nice introduction to LDB, but could also put off new readers because it feels like it's somewhat lacking in substance.  It's probably best to start the series off with the first volume, which has a lot more story going on in it.  Still, this is a nice little collection.

Vertigo Resurrected: Finals #1

Written by Will Pfieifer
Art by Jill Thompson

The Vertigo Resurrected series, like the DC Comics Presents series, really is a great idea.  A mini-series like Finals, from 1999, doesn't have enough of an audience to warrant receiving a proper trade paperback, but this less-expensive format, similar to Dark Horse Presents, is perfect to bring some attention to some pretty decent comics.

Finals is a pretty amusing comic.  It's set at Knox State University, a bastion of independent academic thought and the pursuit of knowledge.  It's loosely centred around a group of seniors, who have to complete their final projects in order to graduate.  Wally, the more or less main character, is supposed to have been working on an example of extreme cinema verité for his Film Studies course, but so far hasn't shot a single frame.  His girlfriend, Nancy, however has found great success with her project, and is therefore the godhead for an on-campus personality cult.  Dave is plugging away at his project, which involves violently robbing just about every business on the campus.  Gary is working on devolving himself into an animal, and so has left their rented house in favour of living rough on the campus, and Neil, the final main character, finally gets his time machine to work, although Dave shoots the future-Neil that comes through the portal.

There's nothing particularly pointed about the satire here - Pfeifer is taking shots at the pre-9/11 atmosphere of self-indulgent pointless study that has infected higher education, but he doesn't put a lot of bite into his story.  This is a fun little college movie, basically. Jill Thompson is terrific at everything she does, but this is the 90s Thompson, before she reached the heights of Beasts of Burden or her other more recent comics. 

Finals is a fun read.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dark Horse Presents #7

Written by Mike Mignola, Andi Watson, Neal Adams, Howard Chaykin, MJ Butler, Stan Sakai, Tony Puryear, Brandon Graham, Felipe Melo, and Carla Speed McNeil
Art by Mike Mignola, Andi Watson, Neal Adams, Howard Chaykin, Mark Wheatley, Stan Sakai, Tony Puryear, Brandon Graham, Juan Cavia, and Carla Speed McNeil

There are some new members to the the exclusive Dark Horse Presents library this month.

I don't know who Tony Puryear is, but the first chapter of his Concrete Park definitely has my attention.  It's set in a place called Scare City, a place beset by gangs, pimps, and protests, in what I assume is a not-too distant future.  These eight pages are spent introducing a few characters, and setting the scene, and I can't wait to read more.  This has a real DMZ meets Love and Rockets feel going for it.

There is also a Brandon Graham story, which is a huge treat.  He is moving into some more abstract territory than King City, with this tale about a man's voice who left him, returning over after the man's death.  He has to deal with the various Secrets, Ideas, and Doubts that are inhabiting the man's labyrinthine home.  Graham is working on some other level, with some of his usual puns being given centre stage, in a story that deserves to be read a few times over.

MJ Butler and Mark Wheatley give us the beginning of Skultar, a very self-aware barbarian fantasy parody that is decent, if not all that special.  There is also a Usagi Yojimbo story.  I can't ever really get into these.

Mike Mignola has a Hellboy story, recounting one of the more mysterious cases during HB's time in Mexico.  This is a very standard Hellboy story - there are monsters, bodies rising from the grave, and Hellboy falls down.  Mignola needs to shake this stuff up a little bit; it's getting a little old.

Among the established stories, the Finder chapter is the best, as Jaegar meets a person with abilities that both represent the pinnacle of his profession, and which nullify the need for someone like him.  McNeil's art is really evolving into something wonderful lately; it's much richer than before (and I like her early stuff a great deal).

Howard Chaykin's Marked Man is almost over, and that's a good thing.  I hope Neal Adams's Blood is going to be finished soon; it's unreadable.  The Andi Watson story is decent, in a Borges-for-children way, and The Adventures of Dog Mendonca and Pizzaboy is pretty sub-par.

The Sky Over the Louvre

Written by Bernar Yslaire and Jean-Claude Carrière
Art by Bernar Yslaire

I vaguely remember writing an essay almost twenty years ago about the artist Jacques-Louis David and his role in helping construct the public image of the French Revolution.  My memory of this is very vague, and I do wish I'd kept my university essays, simply because it would probably be amusing to read it over now.

Anyway, this beautifully designed over-sized hardcover graphic novel caught my eye, because I usually enjoy historical comics, and it centres on David at the time that he was the most famous artist in France, and was struggling to support Robespierre's Revolutionary Ideal, even as the whole endeavour began to descend into madness and Terror.

Opening The Sky Over The Louvre, I figured I'd be in for a real treat - a serious, literary graphic novel that handles an interesting period of history, withe beautiful artwork.  Unfortunately, the book doesn't quite live up to its promise...  To begin with, the art is quite lovely, and I like the way that Yslaire works digital reproductions of David's art, and of the other painters who filled the Louvre at its opening, into his own drawings.  It adds a level of veracity to the book, and the paintings make an interesting contrast to Yslaire's own slightly caricatured representations of the different historical figures.

The book is not just about David's struggles to remain in the favour of the Revolution - a difficult task with Robespierre obsessing over his concept of the 'Supreme Being' as a replacement for a god figure in French society, but also about David's obsession with Jules, a thirteen year old boy.  The art stuff works; the parts with the kid don't.  We are told repeatedly that Jules is beautiful (although the thick swath of a unibrow that Yslaire gives him makes that a little hard to accept), and we are shown repeatedly how the child catches David's eye, causing him to seek him out to use as a model for his portrait of Bara, a young martyr of the Revolution.  The thing is, David never makes a move on the boy, or seems particularly enamored of him, and so his emotional reaction to Jules's trip to the guillotine later in the book feels completely forced and without justification.

I don't know how much of this part of the book is accurate.  I don't remember reading about this relationship, but it does come off as feeling rather forced.  Similarly, the structure of this story relies too heavily on large chunks of narrative text, as if there was no easier way for Yslaire and Carrière to establish what was happening in the story.

I did find this to be an interesting comic, but when compared to something like the old Vertigo series Chiaroscuro: The Private Lives of Leonardo da Vinci, which handled a very similar story, The Sky Over the Louvre comes off as the more shoddy of the two.  Still, I am more than happy to continue supporting graphic novels about important figures in the history of the visual arts, and am curious to find the rest of the Louvre/NBM collaboration books.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Summer Blonde (Stories)

by Adrian Tomine

Summer Blonde collects four stories from Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve, each of which is a minor masterpiece of literary comics.

In Alter Ego, a struggling writer obsessed with issues from his childhood that he hasn't been able to let go, enters into a strange relationship with the teenage sister of a girl he had a crush on in high school.  The writer lives in a different town, and is in a stable relationship, but can't seem to tear himself away from this young woman, with whom he has a platonic relationship, at least until she makes a move.  This story has a bit of a Paul Auster feel to it - the writer wrote one derivative autobiographical novel to middling acclaim, and then ghostwrote another for a celebrity, which received great praise.  One cannot escape the feeling that he is pursuing this young woman with one eye on how it would turn out to be a good story for his next book.

Summer Blonde is an interesting study in jealousy and obsession.  Neil is a sad, quiet man, who has decided he is in love with a girl who works in a gift card store, despite the fact that their interactions with one another do not extend past him going in and buying cards that he never sends to anyone.  He gets a new neighbour, Carlo, who has all sorts of success with women, including the card shop girl, who already has another boyfriend.  Neil steps up his game to stalking, and lets the boyfriend know that Carlo is around, with interesting results.

Hawaiian Getaway follows Hillary, a dour young woman who loses her job answering phones for a mail order catalogue, and descends into her own brand of weirdness.  She makes audio tapes of her roommate having sex, and starts prank calling a payphone across the street to amuse herself.  She has problems with her Chinese immigrant mother, and can't maintain normal friendships.  Strangely, she meets a nice guy through her prank calling, and begins to see a brighter future for herself.

Finally, Bomb Scare is about Scotty, a high school student with one friend - Chris, who is kind of odd.  There are rumours flying through the school that the two are lovers, and Chris ends up alienating Scotty through his interest in extreme pornography and his forceful ways.  Scotty begins to get close to Cammie, a party girl with a reputation for being easy.  This story is a fascinating look at the horrors of high school.  Being roughly the same age as Tomine, the time period depicted in this story is incredibly familiar.

Tomine's stories are excellent.  He has a tendency to not provide any sense of closure in his endings, preferring to close his tales on potentially pivotal scenes.  He has a strong understanding of people who find it difficult to interact with people.  Hillary receives a book on making small talk from her sister, while Neil and Scotty are equally uncomfortable in the same types of settings.

I really enjoyed this book, and am sad that I've now read Tomine's complete body of work, at least until he gives us another issue of Optic Nerve.

Until Tomorrow

by Zara McFarlane

I'm not going to pretend to be even a little bit qualified to discuss jazz music.  I've not put much time into learning about it, and many of the genre's high points are not known to me.  I do know when I like something though, and I absolutely love this album.

I was poking around the store where I buy my music - a much more difficult proposition since the best music store in the city closed back in the summer - when the proprietor put this on.  It took less than the first minute of the first track for me to be spellbound by McFarlane's voice, and I immediately bought the album.

Until Tomorrow has ten tracks, all of which are written or co-written by McFarlane.  As well, she does much of her own producing and arranging, something we are told is incredibly rare in the liner notes.  This is an old school, loungy jazz, yet with a very modern aesthetic.  McFarlane's voice is a precision instrument, and her accompanists back her perfectly.

This album is very accessible, and is one of the best that I've heard all year.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Pluto: Urasawa X Tezuka Vol. 3

by Naoki Urasawa after Osamu Tezuka, with Takashi Nagasaki

With each volume of this series I read, I find myself ever more drawn in to Naoki Urasawa's remaking of a classic Osamu Tezuka Astro Boy story.

This third volume introduces a few new story elements. Where the first two volumes were primarily concerned with police robot Inspector Gesicht's mission to track down whoever or whatever is attacking the most powerful robots on Earth, and the people who support robot rights, this volume gives the story more sprawl.  We are introduced to Adolf (not so subtle, the choice of name), a man who is part of an anti-robot KKK.

Adolf's brother was killed by a robot, something that is not supposed to happen.  Adolf has proof, in the form of the metal shell that was used - only a handful of robots can use such a device, including the intrepid Gesicht.  KR, the anti-robot group, is making use of a number of media outlets to try to discredit robots, and to further the Jim Crow commentary seen throughout this book.

Meanwhile, Uran, the robotic sister of Atom (Japan's name for Astro Boy), starts to help a homeless and sick robot who paints pictures of flowers on the walls of abandoned buildings.  This nameless character has a connection to Pluto - the villain of the first two volumes.

I like how Urasawa is still building his story almost half way into it.  His characters are rich and nuanced, and I appreciate the amount of time and space he gives to new members of the cast, so they can be properly developed.  This is a great series.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Madlib Medicine Show No. 12 - Raw Medicine: Madlib Remixes

Remixed and Produced by Madlib

I feel like the Madlib Medicine Show ended up being a bit of a disappointment in the end.  The monthly schedule was abandoned a while ago, and the last few entries (particularly the 9th one) weren't all that impressive.  When I first heard this twelfth (and final?) disc, I didn't much like it at first.  With repeated listening it grew on me, but I still feel like it's a little too long and self-indulgent (despite being, at 60 minutes, one of the shorter entries in this series).

Basically, Madlib has taken a bunch of older hip-hop songs, and remixed them, filling in the space between them with way too many interludes and skits that may be funny the first couple of times you hear them (especially if you're high), but quickly become tired and played out.  Artists that appear on this disc include J Dilla, MF Doom, Ghostface, Q-Tip, Phil da Agony, Sadat X, Guilty Simpson, MED, Cappadonna, The Clipse, Royce the 5'9, Musiq Soulchild, Frank N Dank, AZ, Royal Flush, Kardinal Offishall, and a bunch more.

As a background mix, it's pretty nice, and Madlib's beats are great, as always, but the disc lacks any kind of unity or consistency, and that makes it pretty forgettable.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Strain #1

Written by Guillermo Del Toro, Chuck Hogan, and David Lapham
Art by Mike Huddleston

When I first heard about this project, a twelve-issue comics series featuring writing by David Lapham and art by Mike Huddleston, I was not very happy.  You would think I'd be over-joyed.  I have been a huge fan of Lapham for years, and have been very impressed with Huddleston over the last year, and yet, I was irritated.  Mostly, I was displeased because I don't see how Huddleston can work on this book and do the amazing job he's been doing on Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker with Joe Casey at Image.  I imagine this is going to be the higher paying gig (it has some big names and a marketing push attached to it after all), and I would like to see Mr. Huddleston's amazing art reach the widest possible audience, but I also want my Butcher.

Anyway, since this first issue is only a dollar, I thought I'd give it a shot.  It seems that filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan (who I've never heard of) have written a trilogy of novels called The Strain that is pretty popular with people who read vampire novels. Now Lapham (man I wish this guy would draw something again) and Huddleston are adapting the story for comics.

This issue opens with an old woman telling her grandchild a story about a freakishly tall Polish nobleman who changes into some kind of creature of the night during a hunting trip to Romania.  The story then shifts to modern day New York, where an airplane has landed at JFK, and then gone dark and silent.  A team from the CDC is called out, where our main character, Ephraim, is one of the first to board the plane and discover that everyone on it save three are dead, although with no cause being visible.  Later, a creepy coffin is also removed from the plane, and I guess things are underway.

Having no familiarity with the source material, I can't speak to Lapham's accuracy with the plotting.  I can say that the story really started to draw me in, and that Huddleston's art is terrific.  It's a lot calmer than what he's been doing on Butcher Baker, and in some places it made me think of Bá and Moon (which is always a good thing).  As much as I didn't welcome new of this comic's existence, I think I'm interested enough to get the second issue.

The Walking Dead #92

Written by Robert Kirkman
Art by Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn

How long has it been since we've seen some straight forward zombie killing in this comic?  How long has it been since Rick was just a supporting character for an issue?  When was the last time Michonne said more than ten words in a row?  Kirkman shakes things up this issue (possibly by quite a bit), and it makes for a terrific comic.

Granted, it's always a terrific comic.  Abraham and Michonne decide to patrol the perimeter of the Community on their own, checking how well the new defenses that the group have put up are working, and run in to a small group of walkers, which are easily dispatched.  Surprisingly, a man appears to talk with them, and their instincts cause them to react, escalating the situation to the point where the guy quickly has Michonne's sword to her neck.

This scene immediately brought to mind Michonne's rough treatment at the hands of the Governor so long ago, and I think it was meant to, but because this is a great comic, it wasn't mentioned right away.  Kirkman leaves a lot to the reader to add up, and that's why this book works so well.

Anyway, we learn that this guy represents another settlement on the other side of Washington, and that there are at least two other communities in the immediate vicinity.  Every time our heroes meet new people, there is a ton of potential for new story material, and I feel like this comic just opened up once again to some new directions.  Will their entrance to a larger trade-based economy be peaceful, or are we going to be looking at a repeat of the Governor situation?  And most importantly, why does this new guy refer to himself as Jesus?  I think that was the most interesting revelation this month, but it really just sat there.

As always, The Walking Dead does not disappoint.  It has held my esteem throughout the year, and with Scalped looking to end in a few months, it will soon be my uncontested favourite comic.

Severed #5

Written by Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft
Art by Attila Futaki

Jack and the creepy imposter salesman cannibal guy are on the road together, with Jack thinking that his friend Sam has abandoned him and stolen his wallet.  This gives Mr. Fisher (not his real name) a number of opportunities to teach Jack about what life on the road is like, as he takes him with him, Jack thinks, to record his music and then help him find his father.  We readers are pretty sure Fisher plans to eat Jack, but we don't know when, so every creepy looking roadside house or dive bar looks like it's going to be the place.  This adds a lot of tension to the book.

And really, the book is tense enough.  Fisher expounds at length on how great life on the road is, but quickly we realise that this is the same road the traveling circus traveled in Carnivale.  To drive home that point, Snyder and Tuft give Attila Futaki the opportunity to show how twisted things are out there in a manner that reminds me of Eduardo Risso's penchant for including strange little silent stories on-panel in books like 100 Bullets.

As this issue opens, we see read Fisher's speech about how on the road, if you want something, you take it.  These words are shown over a sequence that has a man with a knife running across a field to where another man appears to be holding down a naked woman.  This looks like a violent rape scene, but what we find out on the next page is that it is instead a birthing.  It's a cool visual trick, which helps remind the reader that things aren't as they appear in this book, which is something Jack takes the entire issue to catch on to. 

I've been very impressed with this comic since it started.  At times, the characters behave in a very naive fashion, but when one remembers the time period, and its relative lack of sophistication around things like serial killers, it's a little easier to suspend disbelief.

With two issues remaining, I'm looking forward to seeing how Jack is going to get himself out of this situation.  I'm also hoping that we haven't seen the last of Sam, as she was a pretty cool character.

Pigs #4

Written by Nate Cosby and Ben McCool
Art by Breno Tamura and Will Sliney

Pigs is a very interesting comic.  It's about a group of Soviet sleeper agents who were hidden in Cuba to wait for orders.  The original members of the cell raised their children to carry on their mission, which has now actually begun.

The core members of the group have come the United States to carry out their mission, which so far has remained shrouded in mystery, except for some scenes in the first issue which are finally picked up on again in this fourth issue involving one of the original members of the cell being interrogated about the whereabouts of the President.  They have his hand it seems - it's just the rest of them that's missing.

Anyway, most of this issue continues from the last, where the cell have attacked the vacation home of an American senator.  Felix, the one member who had left the cell and made a life for himself in the US, before being forced back into this mess, is still reluctant to use lethal force (despite the fact that we have been led to believe that he killed a gun shop owner last month).  There is tension in the group, and we learn that the Senator may not have been targeted for information, but for another reason.

It's all very mysterious, this book.  What is clearest are the flashbacks to Cuba in the early 90s, where Felix and his associate killed some boys who were picking on him, despite the fact that it led the cell exposed to discovery.  Each issue lately has been showing us more about Felix's unhappy childhood, and it is clear that the writers are expecting to make a lot of use of this character.

I like the way so much is being played close to the vest, while enough information is being dribbled out to make the reader continue their interest.  Tamura's art is looking stronger with each issue, the Will Sliney-drawn flashbacks work nicely, and amazingly, so far this book has kept to a monthly schedule (check out Ben McCool's track record on his other titles, if you are curious as to why I think that is remarkable).  Also, this month's issue has a Becky Cloonan cover, so you know it has to be cool.

The Unwritten # 32

Written by Mike Carey
Art by Peter Gross and MK Perker

I find it hard to believe that there was a time when I was going to drop The Unwritten.  When the series started, it took a while before it found sure footing, or at least that's how it felt to me, who had never read or been interested in the Harry Potter books which this series owes so much to.

Now though, The Unwritten has become one of my favourite monthly comics.  Tom Taylor has taken action against the Cabal which controls fictional realities, and uses them to shape modern consciousness.  His actions of two issues ago (or last issue, if you skip the .5 issues that are coming out two weeks after each 'regular' issue) have left him completely drained of magic, and at the beginning of this issue, Tom is stuck somewhere in Antarctica, completely out of juice.

Even after he is brought back to the research station Tom and his friends have commandeered as their base through the sacrifices of the Frankenstein Monster, Tom looks like he is going to die.  Richie decides that only the Tinkerbell Effect can rescue them now, as the station's generator begins to fail (it was powered by Tom's magic).  I can see how this comic can really appeal to the blogosphere and the people who live on message boards, as Carey's story is about empowering them to have an effect on the stories they read.

While all this is going on, The Cabal is figuring out how to track Tom, and Pullman has some new ideas in that regard.  This has become an action-filled book, and each new issue is ratcheting up the tension and the excitement.  If The Unwritten didn't grab you at the beginning, you should give it another try.  Carey and Gross are doing some incredible work here.

Heading South

by Dany Laferrière

I hadn't read Dany Laferrière in years.  I really enjoyed his work when I was in high school and university, but had more or less lost touch with him as a writer until I saw him being discussed on the New Yorker's website this summer (Junot Diaz, another amazing Hispaniolan writer was talking about him).  I figured it was time to track down some of his books again.

Heading South is a terrific novel. It's basically about the allure of the Haitian male to women of all ages and races.  I suppose its central character is FanFan, a seventeen year old Haitian whose mother works as a seamstress.  He has been aware of the abject power of his looks, and their effects on girls, since he was twelve, but now he has decided that it's time to test his prowess.  He decides that the woman he wants is Madame Saint-Pierre, the middle-aged French principal of his sister's school.  He seduces her in such a way that she believes herself the seducer, and their affair transforms the older woman's life.

Of course, FanFan has other girls, including the equally seductive Tanya, who is herself toying with Harry, the American consul.  FanFan's friend Charlie is playing his own games with Missie, the niece of the former Haitian ambassador to London, who employs Charlie's parents as domestics.

Interspersed with the story of these central characters, including Harry's wife and daughter, are chapters that focus on other characters.  There is a woman who comes to Haiti for a vacation with her husband and young children, and ends up falling for a farmer who lives in a hut, and decides to stay there when the rest of her family goes back home.

There is also a section of the book devoted to a group of sex tourists - women from America and Quebec who come to Haiti alone each year to indulge in their passions for the local teenage boys and young men.  This section was made into a movie, also called Heading South, which I saw years ago, and thought was excellent, if a little unsettling.

Laferrière has written before about the power of interracial sex, but this novel takes his objectification of young males to new heights.  I suppose there is something liberating and balancing about a book that treats men as many male sex tourists routinely treat women, but the degree to which Laferrière mythologizes the transformative possibilities of sex with Haitians is pretty funny.  I quite enjoyed the way in which this book flits from one group of characters to another, and how all of their stories share the same space, with characters from one place being referenced in another.  Laferrière is a writer who doesn't receive enough attention, and I'm very pleased to have rediscovered him.

Malinky Robot: Collected Stories & Other Bits

by Sonny Liew

I was a little surprised to see how many of the stories collected in this book I've read before, but that didn't detract from my enjoyment of Sonny Liew's unusual comic.  Malinky Robot is about Atari and Oliver, two kids (actually, I'm not too sure what Oliver is; he looks a little like a wool-less sheep) who hang out in the city of San'ya, a post-urban sprawl of slums.

The two kids have some pretty simple adventures, involving stolen bicycles, a rare Stinky Fish, and the joy of found money (a large denominational bill, no less).  They don't go to school (although their friend Misha does), and they are well known to a group of older men like Mr. Bon Bon the construction worker or Mr. Nabisco, who builds robots.

Liew's work captures a sense of childhood, but also the unending possibilities of the urban experience.  Some of the stories don't even involve them - there is one nice story that focuses on the loyalties of Mr. Nabisco's domestic robot.  Anything goes in Liew's world.  I particularly like the way he utilizes a variety of homages to week-end comics strips to fill us in on Mr. Bon Bon's sad past.

Liew is a very talented artist and his work conveys a number of emotions.  It is my hope that we will be seeing more of Atari and his friends soon.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Blue Estate #8

Written by Viktor Kalvachev, Kosta Yanev, and Andrew Osborne
Art by Viktor Kalvachev, Nathan Fox, Toby Cypress, Andrew Robinson, and Peter Nguyen

The longer the series runs, the more I find myself getting caught up in the twist and turns of Kalvachev and company's story.  Last month, most of the issue focused on Bruce Maddox, his trainer and lover Marcellus, and Clarence, the man that killed them both in a hit that he thought had been ordered by mob boss Don Luciano but had really been requested by the Don's stupid son Tony, although it also suited Clarences own plans, and those of his new friend Rachel, Bruce's wife.  Got all that?  I hope so, because I haven't mentioned the Russian mobster whose money got taken during this hit, or the involvement of the Roy Devines, one a top cop, and the other a loser private eye.

Needless to say, the story is intricate and complicated, but it also works surprisingly well.  This issue explores the fall-out of the hit, as the Russians lean on the Italians to get their money back, and Roy Jr. tries to make a name for himself out of the whole mess.  For such a complex book, and with such violent subject matter, it is surprisingly funny, as Kalvachev and his other writers whip up new characters like Lupe, Roy Sr.'s assistant, who has the hots for him.

Originally, I started buying this book for the roster of artists Kalvachev is using, but now I'm reading it as much for the story.  This issue brings Peter Nguyen and Andrew Robinson to the fold.  I am happy to see them working with such greats as Nathan Fox and Toby Cypress.

This is one comic that doesn't seem to be slowing down, and is definitely not finding itself constrained by such modern comics plagues as writing for the trade or padding arcs to make them longer.

Tales Designed to Thrizzle #7

by Michael Kupperman

It's been a year and a half since Michael Kupperman last gifted us with an issue of Tales Designed to Thrizzle, his bizarre and self-indulgent anthology series.  I had really just discovered Mr. Kupperman at the time of the last issue (I loved his stuff in Strange Tales), and realize that I haven't read anything of his since, which is something I should take care of.

This issue of Tales gives us a collection of short stories told in Kupperman's usual style of thick lines and narrative non-sequiturs. Stories here involve topics like the evil of bathtubs (much more deadly than any other sort of bathing tub, we are told).

Most of the issue is taken up with a rambling story starring Quincy, M.E.  The famed television medical examiner travels to heaven to consult on a case, but is sidetracked by the fact that Saint Peter has his own comic now, and the two have to figure out whose comic they are appearing in.  Quincy then goes on a journey through his own dreams which takes him to a number of bizarre places, including the set of Reservoir Dogs II.

As is usually the case, Mark Twain and Albert Einstein show up in this book for a little fun, as does McArf (who looks a great deal like McGruf, the crime dog).  Kupperman also experiments with fumetti, or photo comics.

In all, this is an amusing and strange comic.  It's definitely not for everyone, but I enjoyed it a lot.  Kupperman has a unique voice in comics, with a humour that would appeal to fans of Wondermark.  I really have to get a hold of his Autobiography of Mark Twain, which came out earlier this year.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Charity Starts at Home

by Phonte

Phonte is one of the people in the music industry that I respect the most.  When Little Brother got their start, I found that his raps were by far the freshest and coolest part of the group, and for a while, I was in agreement with the throngs of people who heralded 9th Wonder as one of the greatest producers of the decade.  Then, as time went on, I found that 9th was starting to get a little stale for me.

It was around that same time that Phonte started working with Nicolay, to create Foreign Exchange, and by their second album together, Te had basically stopped rapping all together, and I discovered that he sang even better than he rapped.  Side projects, like the crazy 80s cover EP he did with Zo! helped cement my esteem for the man.  Then, in the last year, Foreign Exchange dropped Authenticity, which was incredible, and their live concert DVD/CD, which has become one of my favourite discs of the year.

And then Phonte released Charity Starts at Home, his new solo hip-hop album.  The first time I played it, I thought that it felt like a few steps backwards towards mediocrity, although I have to say that it has grown on me with repeated playing (I've had it in the rotation since September - I always take forever to write about music).

The album does not start off all that well.  The first track is decent (thanks to Sy Smith), but things bog down quickly through the second and third.  What makes this record work are the tracks where Te starts singing hooks or more, such as on 'Not Here Anymore', which has Elzhi guesting, 'Sending My Love', 'Ball and Chain' (sorta), 'To Be Yours' (a very short track produced by Zo!), and 'Gonna Be a Beautiful Night'.  'We Go Off' is a harder track that shows that Phonte can still throw down with some of the best, as he holds his own next to Pharoahe Monch.

At the end of the day, there is something very likable about Phonte, and that gets summed up at the end of the last track, 'Who Loves You More', when he says "I played this record a million times, hoping you would play it once."  There is a level of craftsmanship in his work that is rare in hip-hop these days, but I'd still be much happier were he to do more work with Nicolay and Sy Smith...

Cyclops #7

Written by Matz
Art by Gaël de Meyere

I think Cyclops dragged a little somewhere in the middle, but this seventh issue was originally published as the first half of the last French issue, and there is a definite sense of momentum that propels the story now.

Doug Pistoia is a world-wide celebrity, starring as the leader of a unit of Peacekeepers whose every movement is recorded and streamed live on a reality show.  Pistoia and his crew have gone rogue, having discovered that their corporate masters at Multicorps had manipulated them into killing some civilians - an action that both ensured their silence and pushed a region into war, thereby giving Multicorps a lucrative UN Peacekeeping contract.  Now Doug and his crew are on the run from Multicorps, and go on a rival news station to present their evidence of wrong-doing.

This series has never been huge on characterization beyond Doug, and it's a little hard to tell how everyone is holding up under pressure, but this Fugitive-style story works very well.  I do wish that original series artist Luc Jacamon had stuck around, because I loved his jungles scenes in The Killer, and the way he textured light filtered through the canopy.  Replacement artist de Meyere does this well, but not as well as Jacamon would have.

I look forward to seeing how this series finishes, and (as usual with Archaia), hope that that conclusion comes sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

American Vampire #21

Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Jordi Bernet

Scott Snyder's decided to finish off his 'Beast in the Cave' arc by dodging something that I expected since the end of the first chapter.  All along, this story has been telling us about series baddie Skinner Sweet and his adoptive brother Jim Book's time in the US Army, between the two men became bitter enemies.  They, and their unit, have been following a group of Apache warriors into some mountains, looking to capture or kill them.  The leader of the Apache has led his remaining troops to a cave, where an ancient Native American vampire lives.

I thought for sure, as this issue progressed, that Skinner or Book would come face to face with the ancient vampire, or her spawn.  Instead, Snyder swerves in a different direction, and it's interesting.

Of course, the main point of this issue is that we see the start of the rift between Skinner and Book, as the one wants to go his own way, and the other wishes to adhere to the rules, even if that gets him put in front of a firing squad.  Book has been out of this series for a while now, so it's strange that Snyder takes so much time to build up his character, but I think part of that is to provide a contrast to Skinner's darkness.

These three issues with guest artist Jordi Bernet have been a nice treat.  The only person who draws a better Western is John Severin, but Bernet's cartoonish approach works very well here (except for his monstrous vampires - I thought they looked silly).  Still, I'm looking forward to seeing regular artist Rafael Albuquerque back next month, as I do the regular cast of this comic.

The Secret History Book Seventeen: Operation Kadesh

Written by Jean-Pierre Pécau
Art by Igor Kordey

I really have no idea what's going on with Archaia, but it's nice to see that they are publishing books again, and it's always nice to see another issue of The Secret History.

This is probably the most sprawling and complex comic I've ever read.  This issue alone takes place in Egypt, Soviet Russia, Hungary, and the US, with further discussion of events in Lebanon, Korea, and Israel.  The series has followed the established events of human history, and worked them into an alternate history, founded on the existence of four (now three) Archons, powerful immortal beings that are able to use four rune stones to magical effect.

Now, in the post-nuclear world, the remaining Archons are losing their influence on events (Erlin even gets tossed out of the White House by Richard Nixon), but are still finding themselves involved in the course of history.

Much of this particular volume is confusing, as the story flits from location to location, without centring for very long on any one character or group of characters.  Once the comic decides to focus on the events of the Soviet takeover of Hungary, things improve considerably.  The introduction of Lizbeth, a Hungarian Roma player (in other words, a person with abilities) helps ground the story, and make things much more interesting.  I hope we see more of her in the next issue (whenever that gest published - there is as much chance of it coming out next week as next June).

As always, Igor Kordey does a terrific job of keeping this massive cast of characters straight, while still creating some dynamic pages.  This is a fascinating book, but sometimes reading it really feels like work.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Wet Moon Vol. 5: Where All Stars Fail to Burn

by Ross Campbell

Every time I read a volume of Wet Moon, Ross Campbell's bizarre series about the relationships of pan-sexual college students in the South, I end up talking about how little I would expect to like a book like this, and yet I find myself completely drawn in and hooked by the story.  This volume was no different, but I did have my problems with it.

To begin with, volume 5 is much shorter than the previous books; it doesn't look smaller in your hand, but a good twenty pages are taken up with fan art.  Also, I think it was the first volume to end on a cliffhanger, which is unfortunate when you consider that it's been over two years since this book was published, and volume 6 doesn't appear to be on the horizon anytime soon.  I'm not complaining - Campbell is working away on his Shadoweyes and his upcoming run on Image's Glory (and I think drawing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?), but with an ending like this, I want some resolution!

As with all the previous volumes, this one is spent following the various inhabitants of Wet Moon as they go through the ups and downs of college life.  Cleo is having problems with her girlfriend Myrtle (who we learn is a total psychopath) and drawing closer to her good friend and potential love interest Mara.  Audrey breaks up with Beth and gets closer to Kinzoku.  Trilby reluctantly introduces Martin to her family.  Natalie gets attacked in the park, and has her faced slashed.  She is rescued by Wet Moon's Kick-Ass style vigilante Unknown.  Some other stuff happens.  You know, life as normal for these kids, more or less.

Aside from the slasher/stalker element, nothing new happens in this issue, but it continues to be a compelling and fascinating read.  There's just something that Campbell does with these characters to keep drawing the reader in, and it's pretty interesting to watch.  There is a fantastic silent montage scene towards the end of the book, where many of the principal figures are given a page each, although they are mostly just sleeping or waking up.  You can almost hear the montage music playing.  This only works because Campbell is able to visually differentiate his characters in ways that very few comics artists can.  Their personalities are housed in their bodies, and that is this book's greatest strength.

Wet Moon is definitely not for everyone, but I love it.  I just wish there was some more to read again.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Jesus and Open

by Blu

It's been a while since Blu released any albums, and then these two became widely available at the same time.

Jesus has eleven tracks, produced by a number of different producers, with an even mix between known quantities and people whose beats I believe I'm hearing for the first time.  Hezekiah, Alchemist, and Madlib each provide a single track (Madlib's is the best), while the bulk of the album is done by people like God Lee Barnes, Rome, and Knxwledge, whoever they are.

Blu sounds great throughout - he's really coming into his own as an emcee, and each of these producers give him Exile-like beats, helping keep this project in similar territory to the wonderful Below the Heavens.  This project really allows Blu's versatility and laid-back flow to shine through.

Open, on the other hand, barely gives us a chance to hear Blu's voice.  This fourteen-track album instead shines the spotlight on his production.  He has found a roster of artists to rap over his beats, with mixed results.  Blu shows up spitting on only two tracks, and with the exception of up-and-comer Sene, I haven't heard of a single other artist on this disc.  The fact that most of them have listed e-mail addresses, or URLs for Myspace and Facebook accounts makes me think that we are listening to a bunch of people hoping to gain some contracts or representation from this project.

 Featuring so many rappers, there is some inconsistency to this disc, and it kind of sags a little towards the latter half, before rallying for a strong ending.  I particularly enjoyed the songs featuring AaronSmartz, ScienZe & Versis, and Chop & FreshDaily.  SouthBroad also caught my ear.

Blu's beats on this album are very nice.  Again, Exile's influence is apparent, but there is also an individual voice that shines through.  Blu is one of the more exciting artists in hip-hop right now.  With these two projects he proves that he can handle being on both sides of the boards, and it is my hope that he will have a truly solo project in the future, where he raps on and produces an entire album on his own.

Echo Vol. 6: The Last Day

by Terry Moore

Echo comes to a very satisfying finish in this final volume. Julie and her friends confront their pursuers in a gigantic secret super-collider hidden under the snowy wastelands of Alaska, with the fate of the entire world hanging in the balance.

While much of this volume is spent portraying the action scenes needed to finish things off properly, it is actually the quieter character moments that fill this book that really make it worth reading.  Terry Moore created some very cool, very realistic characters in this book, and uses them wonderfully in the pursuit of his story.

I particularly like the interactions between Julie (who is also sort of Annie, the woman whose death sparked off this whole series) and Ivy, the super-spy who has been helping them.  Lately, Julie has been growing at an increased rate, and Ivy has been de-aging at the same speed, giving a comic appearance to their interactions.

Echo is a terrifically grounded story about a woman who discovers a strange metallic alloy which bonds to her body and provides her with some new abilities.  Of course, there is an evil corporation involved (corporations are the real bad guys, and we all know that), and it's nice to see how things work out in the end.

I can't recommend this series enough.  It has been released in a single volume, which would make a nice Christmas present to a comics reader who has not branched far away from the Big Two companies, but who would enjoy a well-written, beautifully drawn, complete story.

Heart #2

Written by Blair Butler
Art by Kevin Mellon

Heart is a surprise.  Normally, I would have no interest in a comic about the world of mixed martial arts.  The actual sport holds no interest for me, ranking somewhere around Nascar and scrapbooking on the list of pursuits I hope to never learn anything about, yet there is something very compelling in Butler and Mellon's story about a young man who is driven to push himself physically and mentally to go as far as he can in this world.

This issue covers the beginning of Oren's professional career, as he decides to pursue what began as a hobby full time (quitting his job over his haircut makes it a little more easy to spend time in the gym).  What motivates Oren so far seems to be the pursuit of the endorphin rush he got after winning his first bout, although I have to expect that there may be a little more going on than that.

One thing that has surprised me so far, in the portrayal of Oren and his 'team', is the utter lack of female characters in this book.  I'm not suggesting that a female writer would necessarily need to have female characters in order to fully communicate her story, I just assumed that so many straight guys in peak physical condition would attract a certain element of female to them, and so far, that is utterly lacking here.

I'm enjoying Mellon's stripped down art as much as I am the story.  I'm sure actual fans of the sport would enjoy this comic much more.

Gunned Down

Written by Kako, Ricardo Giasetti, Rafael Coutinho, Pam Noles, PEOV, Fábio Moon, Jeremy Nisen, Clayton Junior, Rafael Grampá, and Shane L. Amaya
Art by Kako, Fabio Cobiaco, Rafael Coutinho, Bruno D'Angelo, PEOV, Fábio Moon, Jefferson Costa, Clayton Junior, Rafael Grampá, and Gabriel Bá

Gunned Down is a collection of short Western comics drawn by Brazilian artists.  Why did the editor, Shane L. Amaya feel the need to construct such an anthology?  I have no idea, but it's a pretty decent book, clocking in at about 175 pages, and priced at only $10 (the book was published in 2005; I'm sure it's pretty hard to find now).

In the short six years since this book was published, Brazilian artists have begun to achieve some serious recognition in the North American comics market.  Included in this book are three of my favourite current artists - Gabriel Bá, Fábio Moon, and Rafael Grampá, in what I believe are their first North American comics.  Moon contributes a cool three-page story about a gunfight.  Grampá delivers a strange four-pager about a Chinese market in the Old West which sells some peculiar cuts of meat.  He draws it in his usual Geof Darrow meets Rick Geary style.  Bá works with the book's editor to tell a long story (forty pages) about a half-breed family and some of their challenges.  It's bloody and rough, but also very impressive.

The coolest thing about this book is that the stories by unknown (to me) creators work just as well.  There is a cool story about Harry Houdini foiling a bank robbery while touring the West (by Nisen and Costa) that is very generous with the ink, and a good story about a woman who ran a stagecoach (by Noles and D'Angelo).

Another forty page story, by Giasetti and Cobiaco, is a little hard to follow, but still interesting.  It looks at the lives of two people, an American Lieutenant and a Native American warrior, who met when they were young and in conflict with each other, and then met again later in life when progress had left both of them behind.  It's good stuff.

Picking this up, I wondered if there would be any one dominant 'Brazilian style' of art, expecting most of the book to look like Bá, Moon, and Grampá, but instead I've discovered a great deal of diversity in the art of that very diverse country.  If any one artist came to mind through most of the stories, it was Danijel Zezelj, whose work many of these artists resemble.

I know this would not be an easy trade paperback to find, but if you are able, you should grab it.  I hope to see more from many of these artists in North America.