Sunday, January 29, 2012

Crate Digging: Trance Planet Vol. 1

Produced by Tom Schnabel

I had given Trance Planet up for lost years ago, and was very happy to rediscover it recently in my parent's house.  This world music compilation was a favourite of mine back in '94 or so, when I'd play the hell out of it at the used book store I was working at.

Trance Planet collects music from around the globe that combines traditional, often spiritual music, with a more modern presentation format.  Much of the music here is devotional, and the tracks that aren't, easily could be.  The 'trance' in the title does not refer to the electronic sound that dominated at that time, but instead to a religious ecstasy, although that sense does not work across the whole album.

The opening track of this album is a particular favourite.  'Nwahulwana' is by the Orchestra Marrabenta Star de Mocamique, and if ever there was a group whose work I'd like to see reissued by Analog Africa or the Voodoo Funk Academy, it is this one.  The song floats, and it's beautiful tones would never lead one to believe that it is about 'fallen women'.

I also love this album for introducing me to Cesaria Evora, with the wonderful song 'Sodade'.  The title of the song means 'a longing for what once was, or might have been', and while I don't speak a word of Portuguese, that feeling comes across in her beautiful, rich voice.

Other impressive contributions to this disc include Mother Tongue's Amharic piece 'Maray Wollelaye', and world compilation mainstays Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Zakir Hussain.  The disc is quite varied, incorporating pieces that showcase the tabla, the sarod, the valiha, the oud, the al ghita, and the kanoon, as well as the choral (and throat) singing traditions of places such as Mongolia, Rapa Iti, and Lebanon.  The compilation finishes with a beautiful live recording of the Latin American singer Mercedes Sosa, delivered at a concert after she returned to Argentina from political exile.

This is a lovely album, and I can't wait to get some of these tracks into my ipod.

Green River Killer: A True Detective Story

Written by Jeff Jensen
Art by Jonathan Case

This is one book that came as a bit of a surprise.  There hasn't been much of a tradition of 'true crime' in comics; crime comics abound, but graphic novels with journalistic weight behind them are pretty much non-existent.

The writer of Green River Killer, Jeff Jensen, is the son of Tom Jensen, a detective who worked for over twenty years on the Green River case, hunting a serial killer who left the bodies of prostitutes strewn along a stretch of river in Seattle's King County.  There were something like 48 bodies accrued over the years, and this case was the focus of Jensen's, and others' careers.

Eventually, as DNA testing added a powerful weapon to the detectives' arsenal, they had enough evidence to charge Gary Leon Ridgway for a handful of the cases.  Choosing closure over punishment, the attorneys made an arrangement for Ridgway to confess to all of his crimes, providing the cops with the locations of undiscovered bodies, and the circumstances of all the killings, in exchange for escaping the death penalty.

It's hard to imagine, after hunting the man for so long, that the detectives would have to more or less live with Ridgway (who they always called Gary).  Because of the sensitive nature of this case, they moved Ridgway into their offices, fashioning a cell for him.  It was expected to only take a while to go through this discovery phase, but in fact, Ridgway was there for 188 days.

Wisely, Jensen chooses to not chronicle the entire stretch of time that was given over to interviews and 'field trips' to places where bodies were dumped.  Jensen structures the story into five chapters, each representing a day's worth of interviews.  Within each of these chapters are a generous amount of flashbacks, as the entire twenty years of the case, and their repercussions for Tom Jensen, are shown.

It's hard to imagine the difficulty of having to spend so much time on this type of case.  Det. Jensen became familiar with the victims' families, and yet only rarely discussed the case at home, preferring to work out his frustrations through endlessly remodeling his house. 

This book is as much a biography of the author's father as it is about this deranged serial killer.  When the two men sit face-to-face and discuss some of the more depraved aspects of what Gary would do with the bodies, the emotion is palpable on the page.  Jonathan Case does a terrific job of conveying those emotions, and subtly aging the principal actors in this story. 

This is a very impressive graphic novel.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Unwritten #33.5

Written by Mike Carey
Art by Peter Gross and Vince Locke

I thought that each of these .5 issues, which are being used to fill in the history of The Cabal, the organization that has been controlling the world's literature and making life difficult for Tom Taylor in the whole number issues of the series, was going to feature artists that are not normally associated with this book.  The first .5 issue had a handful of artists attached to it, but the subsequent ones have mostly just featured art by Peter Gross. 

Now, I'm not complaining.  I've been a fan of Peter Gross since he was drawing Books of Magic years ago, and I especially like him with Vince Locke inking (giving his work a touch of a Guy Davis feel), but I was looking forward to seeing some other artists.  Plus, drawing two issues a month must not be easy on the guy...

Anyway, this issue doesn't feature The Cabal or its members, but instead tells us a story about a soldier and a young girl who plays with puppets.  It is set in Silesia in 1740, a couple of years before most of the land is taken over by Germans.  The soldier, who is billeted at the house of a prominent Prussian family, has the last name of Rausch.  That, and the sight of the girl playing with her marionettes explains just who the girl is, at least to long-time readers of this series.

The soldier takes an interest in the solemn little girl, especially after he discovers that things in that house are not right.  To begin with, strange events begin to happen, such as the self-dismemberment done by the cook.  Also, the girl's father is a monster, as the soldier discovers.

In addition to providing us with a little of Madame Rausch's history, we get a slight glimpse of her connection to The Cabal, or at least to the whale-fish (Leviathan?) that wants to hear her stories.

Carey and Gross continue to do an excellent job with this series.  I'm not sure how much longer the .5 issues are expected to last, or really, how long the series is set to run for, now that Tom is in direct confrontation with the Cabal, but this book has never been more enjoyable.

The Sixth Gun #18

Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Brian Hurtt

I was pleased to see the news that Sixth Gun writer Cullen Bunn will be writing Wolverine after Jason Aaron leaves the title in a few months.  Bunn has really proven himself on The Sixth Gun as a writer of long-form stories that are creative in their treatment of familiar story elements and genre tropes, and, if Marvel's editors let him do his work, I'm sure we'll be seeing some interesting things happening with everyone's favourite X-Men.

This issue of The Sixth Gun starts a new arc, 'A Town Called Penance', and it deals with the missing Drake Sinclair.  When last we saw Sinclair, he'd fallen off a train after fighting a gigantic mummy.  Now we know that he was abducted by a trio of men we don't know much about, and has been held prisoner ever since, being interrogated about the whereabouts of the four magic guns he'd had in his possession.

Becky Montcrief, the possessor of the sixth gun (the fifth one is somewhere else), knows that Drake is somewhere in or around a town called Penance, and she has journeyed there to start looking for her.  Penance seems like a strange place - more desolate and scabrous than any town Jonah Hex ends up in.  The town dogs have tumors growing all over their body, and the only person who seems even a little nice, a stableboy, has the worst case of acne seen in comics this side of a Robert Crumb character.

I like how Bunn is building up mystery in this issue by playing most everything close to the chest.  Brian Hurtt has done terrific work on this title throughout, but I love his shots of the town and of the underground cavern.  This is a great series.

American Vampire #23

Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Rafael Albuquerque

I hope that all the people who are going on and on about how Scott Snyder's Batman and Swamp Thing are two of the best books coming out of DC since their relaunch are checking out American Vampire, his first on-going series.  It is similar to those two other series in that Snyder is providing fast-moving, character-driven stories that keep the reader's attention riveted to the page.

This issue continues the Death Race arc, and continues the chase across the California desert in classic cars of a vampire (soon to be revealed to be an old friend) by Travis Kidd, the teenage vampire hunter we were introduced to last month.

As the chase continues, we are treated to a series of flashbacks which help further introduce and explain Travis.  His time in a sanatorium was commented on last issue, but now we get to see a little of his experiences there, brought on by his insistence that his parents were killed by vampires.

Travis is an interesting character.  He's definitely driven, forsaking the potential of teenage love for his revenge.  But then, when his girlfriend turns up in the trunk of the car he's pursuing, he does take a few extra risks to save her, which shows that he's not entirely thoughtless.

As always, Rafael Albuquerque's work on this title is phenomenal.  He handles the excitement of the desert chase particularly well.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Walking Dead #93

Written by Robert Kirkman
Art by Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn

Every month I talk about how great this comic is, but I usually spend more time writing about the writing than I do the art.  I notice I have a tendency to do that with most comics, unless the art blows me away.

The truth is, Charlie Adlard (with Cliff Rathburn on grays) has been doing an incredible job on this book since he joined it (one month before I did).  Early on in the series, I sometimes found it difficult to tell some of the minor characters apart, but as the series has progressed, he's really worked a lot of the character's personalities into how they look.  In this issue, when Rick turns the tables on the man that they met last issue (why is no one reacting to the fact that he calls himself Jesus?), I could see that it was coming on his face.  That's rare in comics.

Also, there is a lovely double-page spread that looks a lot like the cover, showing that Adlard is just as versatile with cityscapes and architecture as he is people and the undead.  I don't know why he's not receiving more acclaim for his work here, but at the same time, I'm glad he's not being lured over to the Big Two - this series wouldn't be the same without him.

Now that the existence of other communities has been more or less proven, Rick goes into defensive mode this month, getting the Community prepared for a possible attack.  I'm sure, after what happened at the prison, Rick is going to remain distrustful of large groups of people for some time.  It is interesting watching him work through possible paths that are open to him - in some ways, I'm sure that the Governor went through a similar decision process before he started going a little crazy. 

There's a terrific scene where Rick, scouting with Michonne and Abraham, realizes that roamer attacks barely raise his pulse rate now.  I feel like he's moved through his recent crippling insecurities, and has become more confident in himself as a leader and survivor.  But, as we've seen before, hubris is a bigger threat to Rick than zombies every time.  I'm curious and excited to see what Robert Kirkman has in store for our favourite survivors as they begin to explore the world around them.

Catwoman: Relentless

Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Cameron Stewart, Javier Pulido, and Mike Manley

I'm still not sure how I missed out on Ed Brubaker's run with Catwoman back in the early 00's.  This trade collects eight issues of that run (from #12 - 19), and is broken into two stories.

'Relentless', the longer arc, has to do with the Black Mask seeking revenge on Selina for stealing his diamonds in the previous trade.  He hatches a very complicated plan that involves freeing one of Selina's oldest friends from prison and setting her up in a Fagin-like operation.  He also hires Selina's brother-in-law at a shell corporation so that her family would have to move back to Gotham.  He then sets about dismantling Selina's world, and the good work she's been trying to do for Gotham lately. This is a pretty standard story, elevated somewhat by Cameron Stewart's art. 

The second story, 'No Easy Way Down', is excellent.  It's drawn by Javier Pulido, but in a style that is remarkably different from what I've come to expect from him.  His art is more minimalist than normal, and it looks a great deal like Darwyn Cooke's.  This story has Selina, her friend Holly, and private detective Slam Bradley (who, in Pulido's hands looks a lot like Christopher Chance, were he a boxer) all wallowing in their various personal miseries after the events of the previous story.

This part of the comic is very well-balanced, and utterly compelling.  The growing closeness between Selina and Bradley is the best thing about this trade, as they move from colleagues to something much more.  It's a relationship tinged with self-doubt and self-pity though, and it more than anything else here makes me want to read the next trade.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Elephantmen #37

Written by Richard Starkings and Rob Steen
Art by Axel Medellin and Rob Steen

It must be a lot easier to read Elephantmen in trade than it is to buy the semi-monthly issues.  This particular issue, which is the second part of the four-part 'The Killing Season' arc, has barely a single page that doesn't reference something from a previous comic.  Now, that is something I'm more than fine with.  I like series that build upon themselves, and accrue a great deal of history.

What makes Elephantmen such a challenging read is that Starkings is forever playing around with the timing of individual issues, and where each one fits in relation to the issues around it.  This has to be the most non-linear series ever made.  For example, this issue takes place 'yesterday' in story time, but we learn that events of issues from a few months ago, like the excellent Shaky Kane-drawn issue 33.  Out of the blue, we are back in that issue, and it is hard for the reader to remember exactly how to slot everything in order in his or her mind.

Aside from that, which always nags at me when reading this comic, there is plenty to like here.  A killer is going around killing transgenics and writing 'No Mercy' on their chests.  In this issue, we get to see that killer, who is walking around wearing Tusk's skull as a helmet.  We also learn  that Sahara is planning on having a baby, although apparently through her look-alike Panya, who may serve as a surrogate. 

There is a lot going on in this book, and the pacing feels a little bit off, but Axel Medellin's art continues to be gorgeous.  The back-up story about Dr. Nikken, creator of the Elephantmen, is creepy and atmospheric, but I find not as enjoyable as the main story.  I find my mind wandering a lot while reading it.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mike Carey's One-Sided Bargains

Written by Mike Carey
Art by Mike Perkins and PJ Holden

This prestige format collection of three pieces that Mike Carey once published through Caliber came out in 2006, but I saw it for the first time a couple of weeks ago, with a nice $1 price tag.

I've been admiring Carey more and more over the last few years.  His Lucifer was brilliant, as is his Unwritten. I even found myself enjoying his long run on X-Men, although not always to the same degree. Anyway, this book has three parts to it.

Doctor Faustus, drawn by Mike Perkins, is a retelling of the classic story of the Professor who made a deal with the Devil to gain knowledge.  In Carey's vision, the story is told through the testimony of Faustus's young servant, who had great love for the man.  Carey incorporates modern understandings of astrophysics into the story, and it is amusing to watch someone from a distant time try to understand such new concepts.  It's a very well-told, and well-illustrated story.

The second story, Suicide Kings, drawn by PJ Harvey, concerns very similar circumstances.  A group of meat packers who play cards regularly are irritated by the fact that one of their number always wins.  He strikes them as a bit of a religious freak, so they come up with a practical joke which involves an actor dressing up as the devil and playing for the man's soul.  This is a very effective horror story.

The final story in this book is a bit of prose (with a spot illustration by Michael Gaydos) about a book reviewer who becomes the target of a writer whose work he panned.  This eventually leads to gigantic Arcade in Murderworld-style deathtraps.  It's good stuff.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Wasteland #33

Written by Antony Johnston
Art by Justin Greenwood

In my opinion, some of the best news of the New Year is that Wasteland is back, and that the creators are committed to putting the book out on a monthly schedule again.  For the first year and a half of its existence, Wasteland was just about the most reliable independent comic published at the time, but something happened that caused artist Christopher Mitten to fall way behind, and eventually leave the title.  The first replacement artist didn't work out for some reason, but now Justin Greenwood has joined the title, and it feels like things are going to work out for it again.

To celebrate getting back into the swing of things, this issue is only $1, and is well worth picking up.  It's not a perfect jumping on point (Wasteland is a complex series), but Antony Johnston does his best to welcome new readers with a detailed recap inside the front cover, and by shifting the story back to central characters Michael and Abi, who are continuing their journey to A-Ree-Yass-I, a mysterious land that has been talked about as the birthplace of the Big Wet, the event that changed the world.

They are accompanied by Gerr, who they think is a Ruin Runner, like Michael, but who we know to be an agent of Marcus, the leader of Newbegin, who wants to keep Michael from getting where he's going.

In this issue, we see a new aspect of society - a Cross Chains town.  Basically, this is an isolated place where Christianity is still practiced.  Most of society has become rather tribal at this point, with the Sunner religion claiming most souls, except for city people (who enslave Sunners), and groups like the Dog Tribes.  It's a surprise to see a holdover faith from the old world still existing here, and I like how Johnston has the people who live in the town revert to a more superstitious and suspicious form of the religion (they think Michael is a demon).

Also of interest in this issue is the introduction of Zakk, a brother of the church who has lost his faith after a visit by a strange man who seems kind of god-like.  This strange man has also recently visited Michael, Abi, and Gerr in their dreams.  Johnston is setting this series up to go in some interesting new directions.

Justin Greenwood does a good job with this debut issue.  I liked his work on Marc Guggenheim's Resurrection(I do wish we'd see more of that title too), but at first worried that he wouldn't be a good fit for this title.  His art lacks the rougher, shabbiness of Christopher Mitten's, which fit this world so well, but he does handle the characters quite well.  Here's hoping for monthly issues of this series all year.

Xenoholics #4

Written by Joshua Williamson
Art by Seth Damoose

Xenoholics has been a fun read, drawing a number of comparisons to Chew in terms of its brand of humour and subject matter.  This issue, I felt, fell a little flat, as it had a lot of plot to get through, and didn't have as much space for the character interactions and strange little moments that made the earlier issues work so well.

Our group of Xenoholics, the members of a support group for people who have been abducted by aliens, are in the custody of the 'Men in White' a governmental group that has been pursuing them since the professor who ran their meetings went missing.  They are interrogated, and the truth about some of their abductions (or lack thereof) are revealed, before they manage to attempt an escape. 

This series is well-written and usually pretty well-balanced, but as I said, this particular issue was somewhat lacking in the humour of the previous three.  I am looking forward to seeing how everything wraps up next issue.

Freakangels Vol. 6

Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Paul Duffield

If you set aside all of the ruined, flooded England, post-civilization trappings of Freakangels, Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield's impressive and popular webcomic turned trade paperback series, you get an interesting study of twelve friends who try to do the right thing, and have a hard time maintaining their closeness with one another.

The Freakangels are twelve immensely powerful individuals who were all born at the exact same time, and who were ultimately responsible for ruining the world (or, at the least, England) in a fit of anger and fear.  Now, in this sixth and final volume, they are reunited and trying to make things right.

The various characters (who are very hard to keep straight, as they look very similar to one another) each have their own specialties, but since 'upgrading' their 'package', or rebooting their powers to be more effective, they are beginning to come together again in common purpose, and think they can fix their mistakes.

There is a lot more talking in this volume than in the previous ones, and the book would have been boring were Ellis not such a strong writer.  Duffield's expansive panels work well with this type of story, keeping the pages turning where other artists might get bogged down in Ellis's script.  I enjoyed this series, and look forward to seeing more from Duffield, who is a very talented artist.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Fables #113

Written by Bill Willingham
Art by Rick Leonardi, Ron Randall, P. Craig Russell, Zander Cannon, Jim Fern, Ramon Bachs, and Adam Hughes

Every once in a while in Fables, we get the equivalent of a clip show.  In this issue, Willingham works with a number of highly talented artists to give us a few short stories about some of the lesser-known characters that make up the gigantic ensemble cast of this series. 

We're given the classic story (drawn by P. Craig Russell!) of an adulterous princess who is transformed into a turtle, destined to always carry her homeland in a teacup on her back.  Later, we're given a story about some of the people who live on the islands that float in that cup (drawn by Ramon Bachs).

Zander Cannon and Jim Fern (a very nice combination) draw the longest story, about a sorcerer who casts a spell on Gepetto and the Emperor back in the homelands which has a long-lasting positive effect on Fabletown centuries later (and helps explain some ancient plot points in the earlier days of this series). 

Finally, we are given a short piece explaining the reason for the amorous interest of a porcupine in human women.  This story is drawn by Adam Hughes - when is the last time he drew the interiors of anything?

This is a fun issue, but ultimately rather forgettable.  I suppose Mark Buckingham needed a break or something, and I'm not going to begrudge that, but I would like to get back to what is happening at the Farm, and the eventual return of our favourite Fables to New York.

Prophet #21

Written by Brandon Graham
Art by Simon Roy

I think I may have just found my new favourite monthly comic.  By now, everyone knows the story - Rob Liefeld is relaunching his old Extreme line of comics, known for god-awful art and stories, filled with shoulder pads, pockets, giant guns, anatomically impossible women, and an utter lack of feet.  A lot of these comics were popular for a little while in the 90s, before the lack of good story and the incredible inability to publish even semi-regularly took their toll, and the books all stopped coming out.  I have some vague memories of Prophet - I think he was some kind of Cable rip-off (and yes, I know Liefeld created Cable), but really, it's not like the comics probably made sense.

Anyway, the relaunch.  This series is being written by Brandon Graham, who is a brilliant artist in his own right.  Graham is best known for King City, an amazing comic that I can not recommend enough.  He is joined on Prophet by fellow Vancouver-ite Simon Roy, who I first became aware of a couple of years back at TCAF when I bought his Jan's Atomic Heart, a short little graphic novel.  At the time, I remarked that he would be a major talent one day, and I think he may be well on the road with this comic.  (By the way - while everyone is suddenly looking to get copies of Jan's Atomic Heart, I imagine that it is easier to sample Roy's second work - stories in Murder Book, an excellent crime anthology series, which can be purchased here - it's very good).

This series is set in a far-off future, where the entire Earth's ecosystems have changed radically.  John Prophet suddenly appears in a drill-bit shaped hibernation pod, having been buried a long time.  He has a mission to complete, which he receives updates about through his dreams.  He travels to a jell city (more on this soon) to meet his contact and receive information about his mission.  What this mission is, or what has happened to the planet, or why Prophet was willing to mate with his slug-like contact, are all being left as mysteries for now.

Graham is one of those creators who breathe out good ideas the way we do carbon dioxide.  Every page of this comic has something new and strange on it, from the variety of wild animals that Prophet encounters (he's only awake for a few minutes before a Tulnaka attacks him) to the strange new inhabitants of the world.  We see a little of an Oonaka meat farm.  These are vaguely simian creatures being raised by some of the creatures that live in the jell city - basically a rotting living jellyfish spaceship that is inhabited by a caste society of creatures that I can't exactly describe - they're insect-ish.  Graham keeps his usual wordplay at a minimum, but I was amused by the drones that shoot live ammunition - living creatures that sink claws into their target.

I found every page of this comic a complete treat.  Roy's art reminds me Moebius, Tony Moore, Paul Pope, and David Lapham (is such a combination is even possible), with a sense that James Stokoe has had an influence on things.  The story is definitely intriguing; I imagine this as being a future Conan comic, but written by William S. Burroughs.  Handing this series to these two is the best thing that Rob Liefeld has ever done in all his years of working in comics.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Caligula #6

Written by David Lapham
Art by German Nobile

I definitely lost faith in this mini-series somewhere in the second half, but David Lapham pulls everything together very nicely for this issue's conclusion.  Junius, called Felix, has been both plotting to kill Caligula, the mad emperor, and assisting him in his depravities.  It's been hard to say just why Felix has acted the way he has, except to suppose that Caligula has some sort of spell on the younger man.  In this issue, Felix and Laurentius, the trustworthy Praetorian, enact their plan and attempt to kill Caligula. 

Lapham, at times, has lost the balance of this series, showing some pretty twisted things as Caligula, and his demonic horse (who was in fact installed in the Senate by the real Caligula) Incitatus, have debauched their way through Rome's collected coffers. 

I was critical of this series for colouring issues earlier; that has been corrected here, with the book looking a little brighter, and the art less muddy.  In the end, Caligula was an interesting and unique mini-series, exploring a time period not often seen in comics (scroll down for another Roman-era story though), and blending fact with fiction in an interesting manner.

Morning Glories #15

Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Joe Eisma

This issue of Morning Glories has thirty pages of story in it, for $2.99.  That alone should be enough of a reason to make it my favourite comic this week, and if this week's issue of Wasteland wasn't only $1, it would be the best deal.  Still, let's look at this in perspective.  This issue is like getting one and a half issues of The Avengers, for half the price.  And then, when you factor in  the fact that there aren't three or four splash pages, you realize you get even more value.

We don't read comics for the value though, do we?  At least I don't - I read them for some excellent character work and visuals, and that's exactly what Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma give us with this issue.  The Woodrun (whatever that really is) is taking place at Morning Glory Academy still, and Hunter, Zoe, and Jun are on a team together, arguing as they wander the woods looking for a set of flags. 

Early on in the issue, Jun is taken prisoner by a rival team, leaving Hunter and Zoe, who just had a huge argument at the beginning of this arc, alone together as night approaches.  They eventually stop taking shots at each other after Zoe rescues Hunter from a death trap in a Darma Station (oh wait, I thought I was watching Lost again - I don't know what the bunker-like room they ended up in was; this is a comic that likes its mysteries) and engage in a meaningful conversation about Hunter's pursuit of Casey that is both funny and a little sad.

The issue is sprinkled with flashbacks to Zoe's past, specifically the time period after she killed a teacher at her school (which we saw a few months back in another issue).  Zoe is an interesting character - it's been hard to tell if she is as tough and cold as she seems, or if she's just fronting, although this issue, with it's surprise ending, helps clarify things a great deal.

Spencer's been doing some very interesting work on this comic, and as his output at Marvel appears to be scaling back a little (Iron Man 2.0 cancelled, Victor Von Doom stillborn), I hope that we will see more of this series being published on time.

Crate Digging: Orbvs Terrarvm

by The Orb

I recently discovered a cache of CDs that I thought long lost while helping clean out an old TV stand at my parent's house over the holidays.  The pile of CDs (maybe twenty or twenty-five in number) were all sealed away some twelve or more years ago, and I thought it would be cool to write about my thoughts when listening to them after such a long time.  Therefore, I'm resurrecting my old 'Crate Digging' feature.

First up is Orbvs Terrarvm, the 1995 album from ambient superstars The Orb.  I was a huge Orb fan in the early 90s, and can vaguely remember being pretty excited when this album came out.  It's exactly what someone listening to the Orb would expect - the seven tracks here range in length from seven to seventeen minutes, and are both mind-numbingly repetitive and eerily beautiful in about equal proportions.

The music pulses more than progresses through loops of sound that are both warm and inviting, and coldly clinical.  These are all instrumental tracks, except for the usual astronaut chatter or disconnected samples that always sound like they are coming from instructional tapes.

The ship of ambient electronica sailed many many years ago (although it's not much of a stretch to go from here to the post-hip-hop multi-instrumentalism of artists like Shawn Lee and Clutchy Hopkins), but I really enjoyed digging into this album after so many years.  It kind of makes me want to read an article in Wired about Jaron Lanier or fractals or something.  I should look for the rest of my Orb CDs...

Any Empire

by Nate Powell

There are some stories that can only be told in comics, and Nate Powell's Any Empire is a perfect example of that.  His story, about childhood in the outer fringe of suburbia in the 80s, is about as impressionistic as a story can be.  I feel like I missed out on some of the nuance, but still enjoyed the originality of Powell's vision a great deal.

Lee is a solitary, self-absorbed child with a fascination for GI Joe and warfare.  He fills his days imagining daring assaults on the backyard barbeque or picturing helicopters circling overhead.  Powell shows his imaginings as taking place within the same frame as the real world, so while Lee walks one way through a field of tall grass, we see a patrol of grunts coming the other.  We see his slightly-altered Snakeyes and Lady Jayne going through the motions of attacking Cobra bases all over the backyard. 

In Lee's circle is a kid named Purdy, who is a vicious little guy.  He too shares some of Lee's interest in war, but he also always has to be the alpha male in any group; this leads to problems for him with The Twins, a couple of thugs in his age group who like to torture the box turtles that live throughout the area.

Sarah is a girl who lives around there as well, who is fixated on helping small animals, especially the turtles she keeps finding with cracked shells.  She fancies herself a young Nancy Drew, and so investigates the mutilations, and keeps a slightly disturbing journal.

As with most childhood acquaintances, these three kids circle each other without actually becoming friends.  As people move away, they drift apart, although eventually they all meet up in the book's conclusion, which I'll be honest, I'm not too sure of.  Powell's incorporation of fantastical visions makes his plot a little hard to trust; the reader is left asking if what he's reading is really happening, or is one character's flight of fancy.  Powell used similar techniques in his first graphic novel, Swallow Me Whole, which dealt with issues of mental health.  The two books work well together.

Any Empire is a solid read, even if I am coming away from it with more questions than answers.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Chew #23

Written by John Layman
Art by Rob Guillory

Only John Layman could come up with a plot as twisted as the one that sportswriter Don Frank has concocted in this issue of Chew.  We know Don as the former boyfriend of Amelia Nitz, Tony Chu's girlfriend.  Last issue, he and a group of his friends kidnapped Tony, and the reason is brilliant.

You see, Tony's a cibopath - when he eats something, he learns its entire history.  Don wants to write a book about the sex lives of famous dead baseball players, and he's realized that, were he to exhume the bodies of Babe Ruth and his contemporaries, and force-feed them to Tony, he'd be set.  So simple, it's amazing no one's ever thought of it before, right?

So, while Tony is being held captive, and his daughter is missing, we also get to check in on his former partner, Colby, who has been reassigned to the USDA.  We've seen this government agency in this comic before - USDA agents are partnered with animals, so Colby's is now working with Agent Buttercup, a lion.  His career trajectory is taking a similar path to Tony's at the FDA, as his superior clearly has it out for him.  Of course, Colby has a way of dealing with people...

As always, this book is wickedly funny.  Layman and Guillory are the Brubaker and Phillips of food-based comic science fiction.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Swords of Rome Vol. 1: The Conquerors

Written by Jean Dufaux
Art by Philippe Delaby

Ancient Rome has long held a fascination for me, but not to the extent that I've ever made a concerted effort to study it.  Instead, I've just sort of gleaned my knowledge from TV shows like Rome, movies like Spartacus(the TV show of the same name doesn't interest me), or comics like David Lapham's Caligula.  Therefore, my knowledge base is especially specious, but I don't really care - stories set in this time are usually pretty interesting.  It is in that spirit that I picked up the first volume of Swords of Rome, a French comic published in North America by ibooks, the same people who published Don Lomax's Vietnam Journal(at least at the beginning).

Swords of Rome tells the story of the assassination of Emperor Nero, and his succession by Nero, his adopted son.  The change of power has been orchestrated by Claudius's wife, Agrippina, who he had planned to divorce.  We've seen all of this before - the intrigue, the alliances between different nobles and power-hungry slaves.  I don't want to say that it doesn't work here, because this is a decent read, but it doesn't stand out.  I frequently found it difficult to remember which character was which (especially among the women), and found the plot a little predictable (and yes, I know it's based on historical events).

Artwise, this book is as lovely as most French comics.  Delaby's faces are expressive (if rather similar), and he has a good handle on period details.  I often found the colouring in the book to be strange - some pages look like they've been purposefully grayed, and so I'd assume we were looking at a nighttime scene, but then the next page would be bright and colourful, while still showing the same scene.  Also, it looks like the people at ibooks edited out some of the nudity in this comic - that doesn't really bother me, but it's kind of strange.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Stepkids

by The Stepkids

When I was trying to decide what to get at the music store one day, I asked the owner what this sounded like.  I have a wary respect for Stones Throw Records and their output - most of it I love, but when I don't like something in their catalogue, I really don't like it.

Anyway, the store owner said it's a little like The Free Design, and that sold me on The Stepkids.  The band consists of three people who sing and write all of their music.  It's the type of band I find hard to describe, so I'll instead crib this description from Stones Throw's website:
The Stepkids groove is a fusion of punk and jazz, West African and 1960s folk, neo and classic soul, classic funk and 20th century classical.
You can't get much clearer than that, right?

This is a fun, quick album (with only ten tracks), which I find myself enjoying more with each listen. I'd like to see this band mix things up with some of the other Stones Throw artists like Koroush, Oh No, or Madlib.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sacrifice #2

Written by Sam Humphries
Art by Dalton Rose

There's a great deal to like about Sam Humphries and Dalton Rose's self-published, and self-distributed comics series Sacrifice, but a big one for me is that I don't know when a new issue is going to appear in my pull-file.  I just got the first issue last week, and suddenly the new one is here! 

Sacrifice is a very cool comic.  It's about a guy who has ended up back in the period of time right before the Spanish conquistadors made contact with the Aztecs.  It's a time of great sectarian violence, and a time of revolution, led by the female warrior Malintzin (known to the Spanish as Malinche). 

Hector, our point-of-view character and time traveler has found himself embroiled in the conflict between the followers of two gods, and is pressed upon to kill Malintzin before she can be sacrificed, for reasons that are somewhere between complicated and unclear.  There's a lot going on in this comic, and the pacing can feel a little off at times (especially at the end of the issue), but I really like what Humphries is doing with this.

There's an easy parallel between this comic and what Brian Wood is doing with Northlanders at the moment - both tell of societies at the cusp of great change (and that's before Cortes shows up; things are going to get a lot worse for the Aztec), and both tell their stories using plain speech.

Rose's art is great, and everything about this self-directed effort is professional and very interesting.  Given the inherent rarity of this comic, I feel lucky that I've been able to secure a copy, and that it looks like I'll be able to read it through to its completion.

Richard Stark's Parker Book Two: The Outfit

Written by Donald Westlake
Adapted by Darwyn Cooke

When I started reading The Outfit, the second of Darwyn Cooke's adaptations of Richard Stark's (really Donald Westlake's) crime novels, I couldn't for the life of me remember what happened in the first one, The Hunter.  I remember enjoying Cooke's work, but storywise, nothing stayed with me.

Reading this volume, I can see why.  Westlake's stories are pretty effervescent.  This one is about Parker wanting to take on The Outfit - a mob-like group of career criminals who run large swaths of gambling and prostitution houses.  The man running The Outfit has beef with Parker, who has had surgery to change his appearance, and Parker is looking for payback.  Or something like that.

Truthfully, I'm reading this book for Cooke's wonderful artwork; the story is secondary.  Cooke loves that late 50s/early 60s period, as we learned with The New Frontier, his love letter to the early days of DC comics.  The sense of design and iconography used in this book is terrific, and Cooke has a good sense of the correct pace to use in adapting Westlake's writing.

The best parts of this book have Parker or his friends planning and carrying out various heists and robberies of Outfit businesses.  Cooke uses a variety of styles for these pages, drawing some of them like newspaper comc strips, and presenting one in an 'illustrated novel' format.  The look of this book is where the fun is; the rest is pretty inconsequential.

Severed #6

Written by Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft
Art by Attila Futaki

I've been a supporter of this series from the beginning, despite the fact that it can, at times, strain credibility to the breaking point.  I've thought that writers Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft had a little more leeway in their depiction of a couple of kids in Depression-era America as being a little naive because, let's face it, they wouldn't have been raised on a steady diet of slasher films and/or overprotective parenting. 

This issue, which ends with a pretty big reveal, however, hinges on either a series of coincidences or a level of planning that would be almost impossible to have work in the way that it has.  And this has tainted my enjoyment of the book.

I love Image Comics because it gives creators a great deal of freedom to innovate, but sometimes the lack of a strong editor can be a bit of a problem.  Were this a Vertigo-edited book, the wrinkles would have been ironed out, making the comic much stronger.  Because the truth is, Snyder and Tuft have a good story to tell, and Futaki is an interesting artist.

Here's hoping that the ending can redeem things next month.

The Unwritten #33

Written by Mike Carey
Art by Peter Gross and MK Perker

I really can not complain about this comic these days.  As Tom Taylor moves closer to finishing his conflict with The Cabal, the stakes get progressively higher, and the story steadily becomes more exciting.

In this issue, the newly-reinvigorated Tom (thanks to some digital-era Tinkerbell hand clapping) sets off to confront The Cabal before his powers wane.  This involves resurrecting a long-dead architect, and wading into his enemies' base without a plan, appropriate back-up, or anything else.  It feels like whenever Tom has a lot of power, he also develops a fair amount of hubris.

Anyway, there are a few things that are not really working for me here - like the fact that no one would have bothered to look for the Frankenstein monster that got left in the middle of Antarctica before moving on with their plan, but the way in which The Cabal chooses to combat Tom's incursion is pretty interesting, and amusing.

Does anyone know if The Unwritten is expected to end soon?  It feels like this book is moving towards a big finish, but I haven't heard anything to that effect.

Pigs #5

Written by Nate Cosby and Ben McCool
Art by Breno Tamura

There is a lot about Pigs that I find interesting and which compels me to come back issue after issue, but at the same time, I really wish this series would hurry up and have a lot more happen in each issue.

Pigs is about a KGB sleeper cell that was planted in Cuba back in the 60s, and which now comprises the children of the original cell members.  They've finally been activated, and are carrying out some missions on American soil.  First, they were sent to get some information from a Senator.  Now, they are tasked with killing someone who is being held in San Quentin Correctional Facility, which, as you can imagine, is not an easy task.

Also making things difficult is the tension within the group.  Felix, the 'White Russian', has adopted a more peaceful stance than his brethren, and has become very skeptical of their aims.  He finds it especially difficult to manage Viktor, the youngest person in the cell, who was only a child when Felix left Cuba for the United States.

Cosby and McCool have been doing some cool things with the timeline of their series, showing us events that will happen much further down the road (like the abduction of the President, apparently), and this issue is no exception, as scenes from within the prison are sprinkled throughout the comic, although it's not until the very end that their meaning becomes clear.

As I've said, I like this comic, but the writers are holding too much back, and need to start sharing a little more about what the group's larger mission is, or where their information is coming from.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Activity #2

Written by Nathan Edmondson
Art by Mitch Gerads

The comparisons between this title and Greg Rucka's Queen and Country, or the TV show The Unit are pretty easy to make, but that doesn't mean there isn't a place for this comic on the stands.  As a fan of war comics, and espionage, when it's done correctly, I am finding myself really getting into The Activity, which chronicles the missions of a Direct Action Quick Response team.

This issue focuses on a mission involving a terrorist cell in Amsterdam that is holding an undercover agent hostage, and is going about procuring weapons.  We get the usual thing you would expect with a storyline like this - cool gadgets, and a chance to see the team in action.  There are a couple of surprises along the way, as we begin to get a better understanding of how this team operates, and just what they are all about.

To be honest, I would have appreciated a little more character development in this issue.  I get that these guys have to keep things professional, but aside from a little hazing of the new operative, there is nothing going on here to help us learn more about who these people are.  I'm hoping that Edmondson addresses this soon, or this series could quickly become dull, lacking any human connection.

Still, this is a nicely-plotted and executed comic, and I'm looking forward to learning more as things progress.  There are some seeds being planted that inter-agency issues will become a big part of the book; that could get interesting.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Whispers #1

by Joshua Luna

I've really come to enjoy the work of the Luna Brothers.  I've read their works backwards, starting with The Sword, then Girls, and not that long ago, their first series, Ultra. Long before that, I'd enjoyed their Marvel work on Spider-Woman, but they didn't write that.  Anyway, I have really grown to appreciate their pacing, original plots, and above all else, the strong characters that they fill their books with.

I don't know why Joshua Luna has struck out on his own with this new comic, but it makes things even less clear as to what Jonathan Luna contributed to their earlier work, as this is a very good comic.

Sam is a bit of a mess.  He's clearly suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (when we meet him, he's afraid to touch a door handle to enter a coffee shop), and his girlfriend has recently left him.  He knows he's not normal, but he also doesn't know what to do about it, especially when his dreams start to get very strange.

He tries to tell his ex about this, but seeing as she's in the middle of caring for her recently injured father, she's not too interested in Sam's problems.  Her friends are openly hostile to him.  What we later learn is that Sam is not dreaming, and has instead developed the ability to have out of body experiences, or project his spirit elsewhere.  When visiting people he knows in this state, he's able to read their minds, and make suggestions to them (hence the title of the series).

It's hard to know where this series is headed after only this first issue, but Luna has me intrigued.  He does a great job of providing the dread that comes with actually learning what others think of you, as Sam visits his estranged mother in a haunting scene.

Artistically, Joshua Luna working on his own brings a different look to the book than what we've seen when he works with his brother.  There is greater textures to the page.  The digital colouring effects that he uses give the book a warmer, more burnished feel.  It's strange - being so familiar with the brothers' work, this solo effort looks very familiar, but I don't think I would have accredited it to a Luna had I looked at it without reading the credits.

This series looks to have some promise - I don't know how long it's expected to last, but I'm probably going to be on board throughout.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Scalped #55

Written by Jason Aaron
Art by RM Guera

I don't know how to talk about this issue of Scalped without talking about how it ends, except in rather vague and general terms.  I will say though that that has to be one of the coolest endings to a comic I've seen in some time, and it comes as a huge pay-off for almost five year's worth of reading (and loving) this series.

The issue opens where it ended last month, with Shunka coming to kill Dash Bad Horse.  Their fight takes up most of the issue, and it is bloody and brutal in ways I haven't seen before in comics.  I could imagine how it must feel to have the wiring holding your jaw together ripped out, that's how effective RM Guera's art was in conveying the visceral violence of this comic.

I also liked the way Guera referenced past issues during the fight, showing Dash's childhood arrowhead collection at one point.  Jason Aaron has risen to great heights behind his work on this comic (although nothing he's done at Marvel can touch the quality of this series), yet Guera has not become a star.  On one hand, that's good because it means he's never left the book, but he deserves equal credit for this comic being so amazing.

Some other stuff happens in this issue too - Catcher gets into it with his horse, while Agent Nitz finally raids Red Crow's casino.  As for Red Crow, he shows up at Dash's place during the fight, and this is what leads to that excellent ending, and to another memorable scene with Shunka.  This comic is amazing, and I wish everyone who isn't reading it would pick up the trades.  If you plan on reading this series, don't take a peek at the end of this issue - let it reach you in context when you get to it; you'll be happy with it.

Northlanders #47

Written by Brian Wood
Art by Declan Shalvey

Change is not an easy thing to accept for many people.  It is especially difficult when that change is coming on the tide of history, and the way things have been for a long time is not going to be possible as the way things will be.  That idea is at the core of Brian Wood's Icelandic Trilogy, the final arc in Northlanders, his Viking comic.

This issue finishes the second of the three arcs, as Brida Hauksson tries to hold on to her family's way of living in the face of the increasingly violent feud with the Belgarssons, and with the encroachment of Christianity on Iceland.  The real surprise comes to Brida when her brother Mar finally returns, only to announce that he has converted.

While Mar is the male of the family, Brida has more or less run the show to this point.  Mar sees conversion, and marriage to a Belgarsson, as the only way to keep from limiting his family's future.  Brida sees things differently, and her stubbornness reminds me of the resistance of Aboriginal peoples in the early days of European exploration in the Americas; she has no idea how large and pernicious Christianity will be.

I like how Wood has portrayed Iceland on the edge of modernity (the bit about the turn of the millennium provoking doomsayers reminded me that I really should read Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's Signal to Noise again).  It's very easy to draw parallels between this type of story and modern times - Brida reminds me of, among other things, comics fans refusing to acknowledge the creep of digital platforms into the business - but at the end of the day, this is a remarkable story about a time and people we don't think of often enough.

Declan Shalvey has done some excellent work here - I love the exterior shot of the Hauksson's compound, with the Northern Lights dancing above.  I hope we'll see him continuing to work in more serious and realistic comics.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Echoes of Silence

by The Weeknd

I don't think it's possible to be any hotter in the music industry than Abel Tesfaye, The Weeknd, is right now.  Especially when you consider that he hasn't given any interviews, appeared on any crappy late night talk shows, signed to any record labels, or even attempted to sell his music, choosing instead to release it for free on his website.

Echoes of Silence is the third free album that he dropped in 2011, and it shows the progression of his sound and artistic vision.  The album starts strong with 'D.D.', his remake of Michael Jackson's Dirty Diana.  I've never had a lot of love for Michael, and instead much prefer Abel's stripped down interpretation.

The rest of the album follows along with the typical Weeknd themes - debauchery, regret, and a sense of misspent youth.  He continues to use his beautiful voice very effectively over the minimalist production.  Echoes of Silence is another masterpiece.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Pluto: Urasawa X Tezuka Vol. 4

by Naoki Urasawa after Osamu Tezuka, with Takashi Nagasaki

I'm glad that I made good use of Boxing Day sales to track down the remaining volumes in this series, because I find that each new volume I read ramps up the level of tension and my interest in this series.

Pluto is a re-make of a classic Osamu Tezuka Astro Boy story (which I've never read), although told in a longer, much more complex way.  In this fourth volume, we get a few more hints as to the identity of the person or robot who has been killing the world's most powerful robots, and any humans involved in the Bora Survey Group.  The Survey Group had examined the country of Persia for Robots of Mass Destruction, and while they didn't find any, the United States of Thracia had used them as a smokescreen for starting the 39th Central Asian War. 

I think what I admire most about this series is the political backdrop that Urasawa sets it against.  There is an easy comparison between the 39th War and the American invasion of Iraq, except for the fact that WMDs didn't later begin to advocate for their own rights and a place of equality within human society as robots have.  That aspect of the story is explored a little more here, as the anti-robot organization that businessman Adolf Haas is a part of has decided they don't need him anymore, and he ends up with main character Gesicht protecting him (despite the fact that Gesicht is dealing with the Pluto case - a weak story device, or proof of conspiracy?).

A lot happens in this volume, particularly to Atom, the boy robot we in the West know as Astro Boy.  Also, Epsilon, the pacifist robot is forced to take action, and Gesicht has to cancel his trip to Japan.

This really is a terrific series, and Urasawa has a lot of balls in the air at any given time.  I look forward to reading the second half of this run.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The 14th Dalai Lama

by Tetsu Saiwai

A friend suggested that I read The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography and I'm glad I did.  I've always had a passing interest in Tenzin Gyatso and the struggle of his people, and I was familiar with his story, but I'd never read a biography of him before now.

Tetsu Saiwai's manga begins with the death of the previous Dalai Lama, and the search for his resurrected spirit.  Once he was recognized as the new Dalai Lama, Gyatso was moved to Lhasa where he began a life of study.  Unfortunately, world events did not allow the young Dalai Lama time to ease into his role, as at the age of fifteen, he had to begin to deal with the expansionism of neighbouring China, which was undergoing the Cultural Revolution, and set its eyes on Tibet.

This book follows the Dalai Lama through a period of attempting to appease and work with Mao's China, until the sad realization that were he to stay in Lhasa, he would surely be held prisoner or killed.  He and a small group of family and advisers escape to India, where they continue to act as the legal government of Tibet, although they have no say over what has happened at home.

The book covers its material quickly (it didn't take very long to read this), but with enough detail that the reader can walk away from this book with a good understanding of what has happened.  Saiwai tells his story simply, but very effectively.  This is a good place to start a study of the current, post-anti-Olympics demonstrations in Tibet, and raises the question of what will happen to Tibetans, and Buddhism in general, when the aging Gyatso passes.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Undun

by The Roots

Every time I've heard the statement over the last few years that 'hip-hop is dead', I've always thought of the perfect counter-argument, which is The Roots.  This ever-changing group has done more than anyone to advance and evolve the genre of hip-hop, while also transcending it with every new album.  And then they go and release Undun, which has to be considered their masterpiece.

Undun is structured as a concept album, telling the story of Redford Stevens, a small-time crook from a poor neighbourhood.  The character and concept were derived from a Sufjan Stevens song, but the packaging of the story is that of The Roots.  The story unfolds in reverse-chronological order, starting when Redford is already dead, and looking back on the string of choices that he made through his life.  At times the story can be confusing, as Black Thought is joined on the mic by a number of other MCs (including Phonte, Big KRIT, Dice Raw, Truck North, Bilal Oliver, and Greg Porn).

The story is secondary on this album though, because the music is incredible.  The Roots, under the direction of Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson, push themselves to new heights here.  The more straight-forward hip-hop tracks at the beginning of the album are banging, but the disc ends with four classical pieces, which make up the Redford Suite.

Three things come away with me from listening to this.  The first is just how good rapper Black Thought is - he seems to be better with every new album, and he was always very good.  The second thing that I marvel at is how collaborative this whole album feels; I imagine that everyone involved had an equal hand, and that's why the music is just so good.  Finally, I can't believe that this album is actually less than forty minutes long.  Listening to it, I always feel like much more time has passed, since this album is so dense musically, lyrically, and spiritually.  Best of the year, hands down.

Catwoman: Crooked Little Town

Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Brad Rader, Cameron Stewart, Rick Burchett, Michael Avon Oeming, and Mike Manley

I don't often buy trades of superhero comics.  If I am interested, I usually buy them as they come out, or in cases where I've missed a particularly good run, I'll pick up back issues at sales or in used bookstores.  Ed Brubaker's run on Catwoman is something that completely slipped past me about a decade ago, and clearly came at a time when neither he, nor any of the artists he worked with, had developed names for themselves.  Looking at the cover of Crooked Little Town, the second collection of his run with this character, it is almost impossible to find the writer's name, or the name of any of the artists.  I guess that says a lot about how much Brubaker's fame has grown in a little under ten year's time.

Anyway, this trade collects one longer story, and a few shorter ones about Selina's new approach to life as the guardian of the East End of Gotham City.  She is not afraid to take on the mob, and spends most of the book hunting down some crooked cops with the help of private eye Slam Bradley.  The story is nicely written, and shows the more tender side of Selina when her young friend Holly gets hurt.  Also, there was an extended cameo by Detective Crispus Allen, who was my favourite character in Gotham Central, which was probably the best comic DC published in the 2000s (and should have been resurrected for the New 52).

The art in this volume is very consistent.  Brad Rader is a very good artist, yet I'm not sure if he's done anything since this book.  I definitely don't remember seeing his name anywhere else.  His style fits nicely with that of artists like Cameron Stewart (who inks him here), Darwyn Cooke, and Michael Avon Oeming.  I picked up two more of Brubaker's Catwoman trades when I got this one; I'm looking forward to reading them.

The Finder Library Vol. 2

by Carla Speed McNeil

Finder has been my favourite comic book discovery of 2011.  Carla Speed McNeil's series has been around for years, but was completely under my radar until Dark Horse began collecting the series in the Finder Library series, serializing new adventures of main character Jaeger in their new Dark Horse Presents monthly anthology comic, and published the new graphic novel Voice.

Finder has been described as 'aboriginal science fiction', and I suppose that description works as well as any other.  The series is mostly set in the great domed city of Anvard, where millions of people live in the cramped, multi-layered, complicated society run by clans and strict social stratification that can even dictate how much artificial sunlight is pumped into a neighbourhood.  The world of Anvard is deliciously complex, and McNeil revels in constructing stories that help to expose new facets of the society, while also provide an emotional wallop.

This second volume of the Finder Library collects sixteen issues of the comic, plus whatever additional material McNeil chose to toss in (this volume does not feel as formally structured as the first).  It contains four stories: 'Dream Sequence', 'Mystery Date', 'The Rescuers', and 'Five Crazy Women', each very different in tone and content.

'Dream Sequence' is about Magri White, a prodigy who has constructed and maintains a complete virtual reality in his own mind.  Thousands of people jack into his reality, called Elsewhere, and enjoy walking around in his memories in the thousands of structures he has created.  Since childhood, Magri had been under the care of a corporation that has made billions off of Elsewhere.  The problem is that now a monster is loose in that world, and visitors are getting injured in reality.  This story is very surrealistic, and completely brilliant.  I found myself getting very wrapped up in Magri's environment, and McNeil does an amazing job of showing his frustration and decent into near-madness.

'Mystery Date' is a stark contrast to this story.  It stars Vary, a young girl who grew up as a form of ritualized temple prostitute in her home village, and who has come to Anvar for an education.  She ends up getting involved in a strange triangle with an emotionally distant professor who wears complex prosthetic legs, and his colleague, a Laeske.  Laeske are bird-lizard creatures about the size of horses, who are often as intelligent as a person.  This is a bizarre story, a romantic comedy in a completely bizarre setting, and it works very well.

'The Rescuers' is the first story in this book to feature Jaeger in a prominent role.  He is living with a group of Ascians, his adopted people, in a large dome within the dome of Anvard, that is owned by the Baron Manavelin.  The Ascians have been allowed to camp on the Baron's property, and work as servants in his estate.  One night, during an elaborate party, the Baron's infant child is kidnapped.  What follows is a form of noir detective story, as Jaeger begins to assist the rather useless local police (despite the Baron's wealth, his home is in a relatively backwards part of Anvard, and so only sub-clan police are employed there).  This was a particularly effective look into McNeil's world, and it wore the influence of the Lindbergh kidnapping on its sleeve.

The final story, 'Five Crazy Women' focuses on Jaeger and the relationships he has with the women of Anvard.  Being a drifter, and moving in and out of the city, Jaeger has few possessions and no home.  Whenever he turns up in the city for a while, he usually calls up one of his many women.  He has some difficulty finding anyone when this story opens, and so he has to find some new 'friends' to take him in, finding only some real nutcases.  This is a fun story, and it reveals more about Jaeger and his way of living.

Taken as a whole, Finder is incredible.  McNeil provides detailed notes in the back (forty pages of notes for 600 pages of comics), which is something I'm always a sucker for.  The depth in her work is pretty much unmatched in comics today - the only comparison I can think of is Neil Gaiman's Sandman for complexity and magnetic appeal.  I suppose an easier comparison would be to Frank Herbert's Dune, or perhaps Lord of the Rings, if it wasn't so boring.  I really loved immersing myself in McNeil's world, and am thankful that she is continuing to publish Jaeger's stories in DHP; I just hope that another long-form story like Voice will be coming our way soon.

As a sidebar to this, I would love to see McNeil write (and draw) Wolverine at Marvel.  Jaeger and Logan are very similar, living according to complicated codes and usually being the most noble savages in the room.  It would be a very interesting take on the character, and I think she would excel at it.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Sacrifice #1

Written by Sam Humphries
Art by Dalton Rose

I really do shop at one of the best comic stores in North America.  They were one of the handful of stores to sell this comic, which most shops got a couple of weeks ago.  Since we are in Canada, and our shop chose the least expensive shipping method (so they could make money selling the comic at cover price - a crazy notion, no?), it only arrived in time for sale this week, and despite the fact that first prints of this comic are commanding high prices on Ebay, they continued to sell it at cover price.  Decent people.

Anyway, this self-published comic comes from the writer of Our Love is Real, which was one of the biggest surprise comics of 2011, in terms of both its shocking subject matter (people have sex with animals, vegetables, and minerals, but not each other) and its limited press run.  Now Humphries is doing the same thing all over again, but this time with a six-issue mini-series.

Sacrifice opens as Hector escapes from a hospital, and then goes for lunch at a crappy taco joint.  Suddenly, he is transported back into the time of the Aztecs, just prior to the arrival of the Spanish.  He is found by a group of Aztecs, who plan on sacrificing him before they see the intricate tattoo on his back.  They decide they need to take him to Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City) for an audience with Emperor Moctezuma.  Hector becomes the focus of a theological debate between the men who found him, supporters of the god Quetzalcoatl, while the Emperor's adviser supports Huitzilopotchli.

As the story progresses, we learn a few more things.  Hector is epileptic, and has always had a strong interest in the Aztec and their fate at Spanish hands.  Is he really traveling through time, or are these visions merely the product of his disease, a la Joan of Arc and Louis Riel?

Dalton Rose's art is very good.  I see a few influences in his work - Paul Pope, European comics, Michael Allred, and the style of the cartoon King of the Hill all mash together in his art.  The book, coloured by Pete Toms, looks vibrant and bold, with bright backgrounds.

I'm very pleased that I've got the opportunity to collect this series without having to wait for a trade.  These are some very talented people making this comic, and I hope that this fiercely independent approach to doing business is successful for Humphries.

Sweet Tooth #29

by Jeff Lemire

It's been a while since we've last seen Gus, Mr. Jeppard, or the other cast members of this series.  For the last three months, we've been given a story set in Alaska almost one hundred years ago (with guest artist Matt Kindt) which has helped establish a little more of an historical connection between what we know of Gus's world and the past.

Now, Jeff Lemire is back to drawing the book (I do love his art), and we get to find out what has been happening with all of our favourite characters.  It seems that about a month has passed in story time, with Jeppard camping out on his own while waiting for Gus to recover from his injuries and rejoin him with Dr. Singh so they can continue their travels north.

During this time, Lucy has been getting sicker, and keeping it from everyone.  Also, Johnny has been reading the records of Project Evergreen, the group that built the dam facility where everyone has been staying.  The revelations he discovers coincide a little too neatly with the information that Jeppard uncovers when he goes to steal a vehicle from Haggarty's camp.  There is no real surprise in learning that Walter, the man in the dam has been lying to everyone, but I'm very interested in seeing how this is going to play out.

Sweet Tooth has been a very strong monthly comic from Vertigo for a couple of years now, and I like that the quality is not letting up.

iZombie #21

Written by Chris Roberson
Art by J. Bone

I was pretty surprised to find that Michael Allred hadn't drawn this issue of iZombie, and that the art was instead provided by a talented artist from my hometown - J. Bone.  I've been familiar with Bone's work for years, but haven't read much of his output (I've stayed away from the DC 'all-ages' work that he is best known for).  I love the work that Allred does on this title, but also found the change of pace to be welcome.  This is the second issue of this series handled by a guest artist; I hope that everything is going okay for Mr. Allred, and that he's just taking a well-earned month or two off.

Anyway, this series definitely feels like it's moving towards a conclusion, as various long-running plotlines begin to converge even more than they have lately.  Gwen, our zombie protagonist, is in the custody of the Dead Presidents, and she surprises them by informing them that Galatea is active in the area.  This leads the Presidents to track her down, but not before coming face to face with Horatio and his group of monster killers from the Fossor Corporation, who also appear to be working with Amon.  As I said, plots are colliding all over the place.

There's more in this book too - Gwen tries to enjoy a brain smoothie, Ellie gets to dance, and Scott has a chat with a leopard.  Bone's art gives the story a lighter, more cartoon-ish atmosphere than Allred's work, and it doesn't always fit with the subject matter, but this is a fine looking comic.

Fatale #1

Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, especially when working together, are two of the most lauded and respected creators making comics these days.  Their work on Sleeper, Incognito, and the sublime Criminal has received tons of praise over the last ten years or so, and deservedly so.

I'm not sure what caused them to publish Fatale through Image Comics instead of Marvel's Icon imprint, which is where their last two collaborations were released.  It doesn't matter though, as aside from the logo on the cover, the design and feel of this book is no different from Criminal or Incognito, down to the essay by Jess Nevins at the back of the issue.

Where Criminal was begun as an homage to the crime pulps that preceded comics, and Incognito was the same for adventure pulps, Fatale is their horror book (although it reads like a crime series).  This first issue begins at a funeral for a mystery writer.  His godson and executor meets a beautiful young woman whose grandmother knew the writer.  Later, the godson is at the old man's secluded house when some thugs with guns show up.  The girl is there too, and she helps him escape, although as they flee, they get in a car accident. 

At that point, I started to get a sense of what I expected the series to be - a mystery surrounding the old writer's unpublished first novel.  That's not going to be the case though, as the rest of the book is set back in the 1950s.  There is a reporter (with the same last name as the writer in the introduction) who is interested in a woman who has the same name as the girl at the funeral (or is she the same girl - there is a suggestion that Josephine doesn't age).  There is also a corrupt cop who keeps her as a mistress, and some business involving a cult that was slaughtered in their home.

There's not much to go on with this first issue.  Brubaker is taking his time setting up the story and characters, preferring in this case to dump us into the deep end and let us make our own connections as the story goes.  There is definitely enough to grab the reader's interest, and Phillips's art is lovely - moody and evocative of the atmosphere and time period.  It's good stuff.