Friday, August 31, 2012

The Sixth Gun #24

Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Brian Hurtt

I think right off the bat it's important to confess that I have had a weakness for the mostly-white cover ever since I bought Alpha Flight #6 back in my pre-teen days.  I find they are even more effective, now that technology is such that the inside cover doesn't bleed through...

Anyway, this is a gorgeous cover by Brian Hurtt, which leads to yet another amazing issue of The Sixth Gun, one of my favourite creator-owned on-going series.  This issue marks the beginning of a new story arc, 'Winter Wolves', which opens by checking in with a number of characters we haven't seen for a little while.

The members of the Sword of Abraham are having a restless night, as General Hume, whose corpse they keep prisoner in their cellar, is stirring again, and when his body is confronted, he delivers a fair amount of foreshadowing, while also revealing that the Widow Hume has a different relationship to him than we expected.

Gord Cantrell shows up in these pages again, searching for his friends.  It looks like he's being followed though, so expect that when he finds them, bad things will happen.

From there, the story shifts back to the people that Gord is looking for - Drake Sinclair and Becky Montcrief.  Having escaped from the strange predicaments of the last few issues, they have decided that they should no longer hide from the Widow Hume, but should instead confront her.  Before doing that though, Drake wants to pick up some allies at a place called Fort Treadwell.  Journeying there though, they run into problems as they are suddenly swallowed up by deepest winter and surrounded by wolves.

This is a good issue in a very good series.  Cullen Bunn's name has been showing up all over the place at Marvel lately, and while some of his work there is very fine, he is similar to other recent up-and-comers at the company (Jason Aaron, Rick Remender, and Kieron Gillen all come to mind) in that his creator-owned work is much, much better.

Spaceman #9

Written by Brian Azzarello
Art by Eduardo Risso

Spaceman is a very cool comic.  It is set in a world feeling the effects of environmental collapse, where the rich live in walled communities (called the Dries), and everyone else lives in flood-ravaged ruins of former cities.  Our hero is Orson, a 'spaceman', the result of a genetic engineering program.  He looks more like a neanderthal than a man, and has great strength and resilience.

He has stumbled into a kidnapping plot involving Tara, a young girl who has a key role on a reality show called The Ark, which involves a pair of movie stars adopting children from around the world.  Orson rescues Tara from her kidnappers, and finds himself now the target of any number of factions.

This final issue has Orson and his fellow Spaceman Carter working to free Tara just as the police descend on her new kidnapper's location.  There is a lot of chaos.

What has made this series stand out is Azzarello's use of his own invented English slang.  People speak a patois that is easily understood, and clearly extrapolated from how we speak today, and it's pretty fascinating.  Azzarello has become quite fond of puns and word games (read any issue of his amazing Wonder Woman), and it wasn't until the very end of the issue that I became aware of the one being used in Tara's name.

Eduardo Risso is always an amazing artist, and when working on Azzarello's scripts, he shines particularly brightly.  Vertigo has seemed to have diminished in the last couple of years, but they are still putting out some of the best new comics out there, and this is definitely a title that deserves as much acclaim as Azzarello and Risso's 100 Bullets did.

Prophet #28

Written by Brandon Graham with Giannis Milonogiannis and Simon Roy
Art by Giannis Milonogiannis

In the last issue of Prophet, the newly-returned 'Old Man Prophet', as he is called here, reunited with his old friend Hiyonhoiagn, after a thousand-year absence (the friend is a living tree).  Together, they set off to find the remaining pieces of their old companion, the former Youngblood team member Diehard.

In this issue, they've found most of that ancient android, and he has begun leading them to the rest of his body.  To find his head, they travel to Juno, where Dolmantles (the blanket-like creatures that one of Prophet's clones used in an earlier issue to help him survive) have taken over all of the inhabitants.

The issue is full of bizarre action and Graham's peculiar style of tossing readers into his strange worlds without taking any time to explain what is happening.  The level of creativity and individuality in this book is stunning, and I continue to enjoy it in a way that is different from everything else that is on the stands in the comic stores.

Now that Prophet has restored his friend, I hope that we are going to get a better idea of just why he is in opposition to the Earth Empire, and how he is going to interact with all of his offspring or clones that we have been seeing since Graham relaunched the title.

This is a very attractive book, and I guarantee it is like nothing else you are reading right now.

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 7

Written by Eiji Otsuka
Art by Housui Yamazaki

I never get bored of the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, the manga series that follows the adventures of a group of young university graduates who use their various skills (corpse dowsing, channeling, mortuary make-up) to locate corpses and take them to where they wish to be.  It sounds like the type of concept that would get old, but seven volumes in, I find that the series still feels fresh and exciting.

This volume tells three stories across its six chapters, which all deal with themes of obsession.  The first story involves the Japanese love of robots, as a group of university students try to build a mechanized suit, and then a robot, to help with heavy lifting.  The Kurosagi crew, broke again, agree to test the equipment when they take on a job delivering heavy tombstones.  It's not long before corpses are involved.  Japanese otaku culture is major component of this story, and that leads to endnotes by editor Carl Gustav Horn that would make David Foster Wallace jealous.  I learned a lot from this story.

The second tale involves the Japanese fixation on Audrey Hepburn (although the famous actress here is given a different name), and their predilection for cosmetic surgery.  A clinic is offering revolutionary surgery that gives its customers pointy ears like their idol.  The problem is that these ears often sport a jinmenso, or ghostly face of their own.  As the Kurosagi group get involved in this case, they discover that their sinister counterparts, the Shirosagi, are also involved, and have a plot to capture Karatsu.

The final story involves the ambitions of a long-time assistant to a famous Japanese director, who decides that he needs to take some drastic steps to move out of his boss's shadow.

All of these stories deftly blend humour with horror, and all feature strong characterization.  I find that I am always surprised by just how much I enjoy this book.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The New Deadwardians #6

Written by Dan Abnett
Art by INJ Culbard

Things take a few different turns in the latest issue of The New Deadwardians.  Inspector Suttle comes up with a theory about his case (involving the murder of a vampire - something previously not believed possible) that I didn't see coming, and also engages himself in a manner he hasn't in some fifty years when his prostitute friend comes around with some new information.

The New Deadwardians is set in a remarkably well-realized world where most upper-class Londoners have become vampires, and where areas outside of their control are subject to zombie attacks.
The murder victim is a Lord of some importance, and Suttle keeps coming across evidence of a secret society's involvement in everything that is going on.

This leads to his having an interesting conversation with a Mr. Salt, a poet who was known to associate with Lord Hinchcliffe.  Salt discusses some numerology, the likes of which always loses me, and leads Suttle into some trouble.

As with the previous issues, Abnett is crafting a very good story, and it is being masterfully illustrated by Culbard.  This is a very good series.

Morning Glories #21

Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Joe Eisma

One thing that can kind of annoy about Morning Glories, Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma's brilliant series about students involved in a Lost-like story about a strange school that kidnaps its students and manipulates their lives for unseen ends, and that is that the series often waits a few issues before addressing cliffhangers.

A couple of issues back, Hunter, one of the core group of characters we as readers have been following since the series began, was at the mercy of another character, who was prepared to kill him.  He was suddenly, and violently, rescued by a girl we hadn't seen before.  Then Spencer moved the story to other places for a while.  Finally, with this issue, we get to see what happened next.

It turns out that Hunter's rescuers were part of the same group as Guillaume, Jun's old friend and lover, who we met a while back.  They'd all been studying under the mysterious Abraham before being sent to the Morning Glory Academy to carry out some kind of mission.

Most of this issue is given over to introducing these new characters - we see in flashbacks that they went through the same events as our heroes did when they first came to the school, and we learn that they all knew Jun from back in the day.  We also get a slight sense of their mission, but Spencer plays that part pretty close to the vest, choosing instead to add to the high number of unknowns currently gathering throughout this series.

Spencer's work here has always impressed me in terms of character and his ability to effectively use the individual issue to tell part of a larger story (really, this is a dying art in this day and age).  Eisma is equally adept at crafting a strong sense of atmosphere and dread in this comic.  Together, they give jsut enough information each issue to make me anticipate the next without frustration setting in.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Murder Book Volume 3

Written by Ed Brisson
Art by Jason Copland and Johnnie Christmas

When I bought a ticket to attend Fan Expo this past weekend, there was only one specific comic that I was there to buy - Ed Brisson's newest issue of Murder Book.

Brisson is a talented crime writer, whose stories in this series have always tended towards the bleak and the ironic.  If you could imagine packing the emotional intensity of an arc of Criminal into a short story, you'd basically have a good idea of what to expect from this series.

This issue opens with Fathers and Sons, drawn by Jason Copland.  This is a very good story about a man who owes money to a mobster, and whose family get caught up in the violence of collection day.  Brisson plays well with the father and son angle (it's hard to talk about without spoiling the story), and the story looks great.

The second story, Midnight Walk, shows how it doesn't always pay to be a good Samaritan.  It's also a very good piece.

These self-published comics are always a good read.  I highly recommend people visit Mr. Brisson's site to pick them up.  Brisson told me that he has a new series being solicited by Image soon, and he's also the letterer on Prophet.  Clearly a creator to watch.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Born With a Tooth

by Joseph Boyden

Sometimes approaching a new writer through his most acclaimed work, and then working backwards to his earliest published writing can be disappointing.  Having read The Savage Detectives and 2666, I've found that everything else written by Roberto Bolaño has been not disappointing, but diminished.  I wondered if the same would happen with Boyden when I started into Born With A Tooth, his collection of short stories which was published before Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce solidified his place in contemporary Canadian literature.

I needn't have worried - the stories in here are wonderful.  There are thirteen of them, divided almost evenly into four sections, each given a compass direction and a theme (East = Labour, South = Ruin, West = Running, and North is saved for Home).  As with his other writing, these stories are almost exclusively written from an Aboriginal perspective, and tell of the challenges faced by Northern Native communities in Canada, and of the people who either stay in them, or those that have left.

Through this book, we hear from characters like a homeless Native man living in Toronto who witnesses some awful things one night, a woman who leaves her young children to fly south with a pilot she quickly learns she doesn't even like, another woman who works at the Bingo Hall her late husband railed against, and a woman who fronts Canada's longest-lasting (and probably only) all-girl Native punk band.  The last four stories, in the 'North' section, tell aspects of the same story, of the suicide of a young woman who left her reserve to attend college, from four different perspectives - her uncle (the reserve drunk), her younger brother (a gas-sniffing troublemaker), her grandfather (thought to be one hundred years old), and the priest sent to the reserve from Toronto (who most definitely does not understand his congregation, their culture, or what his role within it should be).  One story, 'Bearwalker', which tells the story of a shape-shifter who terrorises his girlfriend and his best friend, was so gripping and thrilling that I wanted to stay on an airplane and finish it.

These stories are funny, heart-breaking, and in all ways, very strong.  Boyden portrays the verities of Native culture and living, but beyond that, he is a damn good writer.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A.D.D.

Written by Douglas Rushkoff
Art by Goran Sudzuka and Jose Marzan Jr.

Douglas Rushkoff can be a difficult writer to read.  His Vertigo series Testament was a clear case of ambition not being met by the material (it was about how Old Testament stories were living in a future where young people are under close government control).  With A.D.D., Rushkoff returns to some of the same themes, minus the Biblical aspect, but is more successful because the scope of the story is much more contained in this thin original graphic novel.

The words acronym ADD stands for Adolescent Demo Division, a team of video gamers who have been raised in isolation to be be experts in their fields, as well as media stars.  The ADD kids are beginning to show some special abilities, such as main character Lionel's ability to 'dekh' images that lie behind screen images.

When team leader, and Lionel's best friend, Karl, 'levels up', most of his teammates are jealous of him, but when he later turns up dead, Lionel and his few remaining friends spring into action to expose the truth behind Nextgen Inc., and the ADD's kids histories.

Rushkoff employs lots of futuristic slang that isn't always easily understood (I kept thinking of 'dekh' as meaning roughly 'grok'), but his message about media manipulation and corporate dominance of individual thought is pretty clear.

It was nice to see Goran Sudzuka's art on this book; I haven't seen much from this artist since his fill-in arcs on Y the Last Man, and I've always enjoyed his work.

In all, this is a decent read, which does raise some important points.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Unwritten #40

by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

It's been a while since we last saw Tom Taylor, so it's nice to see this issue feature him again, as Inspector Patterson, the Australian police officer we've been following for the last few issues takes her unicorn to stop the leader of the Church of Tommy from interrupting Tom's first stop on his Australian tour.  This leads to all sorts of madness, including a suitcase nuke, angry stories, and Tom perhaps being able to finally put the lightning back into the bottle of his public persona.

The Unwritten has worked really well for a while now, and this issue is a good example of why that is.  Carey and Gross work remarkably well together, and continue to move the story into new directions.  I thought that after the Cabal was finished off, the series would end, but it seems that there is more that Carey wants to say with this story.

What confused me a little is that the gigantic crowd that bought tickets for Tom's show were actually just sitting in a giant stadium to watch him read children's stories.  It made me think of the recent Charlie Sheen stage show, where people lined up and paid good money to listen to the man ramble.

Anyway, at the end of this issue, Didge announces that she has a message from Tom's girlfriend, which I guess tells us where the series is headed next.


Planetoid #3

by Ken Garing
One of the things that most attracted me to The Walking Dead when I first started reading it was that Robert Kirkman wasn't just interested in showing his characters escaping death time and again, he was interested in showing them trying to come to grips with all that had happened to the world, and to slowly begin rebuilding.

With this third issue of Planetoid, Ken Garing does much the same thing.  Silas, our main character, has found himself stranded on a metal-covered planetoid.  Last issue, he rescued a tribe of nomads from the planetoid's robotic defenders.  At the very end of the issue, they pledged themselves to him.

Now, in this issue, Silas has become the leader of a coalition of tribes, solo scavengers, and a few members of a frog-like race.  His goal is to repair a recently-crashed ship, with the hopes of leaving the planetoid.  He spends the entire issue organizing and building a camp for everyone.  They all contribute, finding sources of food, engaging in reptile husbandry (there are no mammals), and learning to use tools and machines that they have scavenged.  There is little conflict or drama in this issue, but I found that I really got into the society-building aspect of it all.

Garing has come out of nowhere with this series, and it has impressed me a great deal with its intelligence and straight-forward approach to interesting science fiction.  I also really like his art - just check out how awesome that cover is.  This is a very good series that I'm not hearing as much about as I think I should be.

Scalped #60

Written by Jason Aaron
Art by RM Guera

Scalped is a rare book in so many ways.  It's become increasingly rare for a Vertigo title to live for sixty issues, with only The Unwritten and American Vampire poised to last as long (Fables and Hellblazer don't count, as neither one of them is likely to ever reach a story ending), especially with the consistently unspectacular sales that this book brought in (which has never made sense to me).

Scalped is rare for other reasons though.  It is a crime comic set on a poor First Nations Reserve in the American Southwest - a setting so far outside of the mainstream as you can get, while still being in America.  The series featured First Nations characters in a variety of roles - good, bad, and endlessly complex, something that is rarely done in any form of media in North America.  It showed the desperate poverty of reserve communities, and never shied away from depictions of drug and alcohol abuse, family instability, and many of the other problems that plague Aboriginal communities.

More than that though, it showed the community as real.  People in this comic do some pretty awful things, but they also turn around and surprise the reader with their kindness, compassion, dignity, and fortitude.  Over the years there have been charges of appropriation of voice levelled against Jason Aaron, which is a serious issue when depicting Aboriginal characters, but I believe Aaron did an excellent job.

A big part of why I say that is because I felt a genuine sadness in finishing this book, knowing that I won't be seeing these characters again.  There aren't too many series I can think of where this has happened to me.  I miss Yorick and 355 from Y the Last Man, Zee from DMZ, and a few of the characters that have been killed off in The Walking Dead, but there are a number of characters in Scalped that I began to feel real affection for, the same way I miss characters like Bubbles, Omar, and Wallace from The Wire.  (Is that sappy?  I often feel the same way about the characters of a really good book, but you don't spend five to six years with a novel.)

And therein lies the strength of Scalped.  Aaron created more than a kick-ass crime story, and his use of secondary characters transcended the travails of Dash Bad Horse and Lincoln Red Crow, the two central figures in this story.  It's the background folk that I grew to love.  Carol's transformation over the course of the series made me happy and proud of her, while Dino Poor Bear's made me very sad.  I'm going to miss Granny Poor Bear and Lester Falls Down.  These are some great characters.

This final issue closes off the book perfectly.  The final confrontation between Dash, Lincoln, Catcher, and Agent Nitz ends just as you would expect it to, and the survivors are left appropriately.  Aaron doesn't go in for the happy ending (except for Carol), but he does go for the correct ending.

I've felt for a long time that Dash stopped being the main character of the book before it reached its second year; really, this entire comic is about the redemption and growth of Red Crow.  He is one of the most nuanced and complex characters ever created in comics, and I love seeing where Aaron left him at the end of this book.

This series has featured a few great artists, but it is RM Guera who has worked on the lion's share of issues, who gave it its distinct look and feel.  Guera's rough art created just the right atmosphere for the Prairie Rose Reserve, and I look forward to seeing what projects he works on next.  This series has also featured some amazing covers by Jock, an artist who I consider to be one of the top three cover artists (with Brian Bolland and Dave Johnson)  I love the way this final issue's cover echoes the one he made for the first issue.

It is my hope that we will see these creators working on something that they own again.  I have yet to read anything by Jason Aaron at Marvel that matches or even comes close to matching the intelligence, balance, and insight of this series.  If you've never read Scalped, I urge you to start at the beginning.  I also kind of envy you the opportunity.

Mind MGMT #4

by Matt Kindt

One of the coolest things (and there are many) about Matt Kindt's new on-going series was that, the main story (each issue has two other shorter features) never even mentioned the words 'Mind MGMT' until the end of the third issue.  No, our main character Meru has found herself face-to-face with the man she has pursued around the world, Henry Lyme.

She was looking to write a book about a famous flight where every passenger on the airplane was stricken with amnesia.  She discovered that one passenger, named Henry Lyme, went missing from the flight.  Her quest to find him took her to South America, Africa, and China, and along the way she was pursued by Immortal killers, and assisted by a kindly CIA Agent.  Now that she has found Lyme, he begins to tell her his history with Mind MGMT.

It seems (and I say seems, because in a hidden message, Kindt tells us "nothing is what it seems") that Lyme was recruited as a child, after a mishap with his mental abilities, to a school that taught him various psychic arts.  He was involved in the first Iraq war (which somehow had American soldiers liberating Baghdad, so I'm not sure if we are looking at an alternate history), but also clearly ended up leaving the organization.

This issue tells us a lot, but still leaves a great deal unsaid.  I really like the speed at which this series is moving - Kindt takes his time with setting up this world, but still has Meru going through a variety of experiences at a pretty quick pace.  Kindt excels at this type of book - where there are complicated rules of engagement and lots of complex backstory that he portions out on a need-to-know basis.

This title is up there with Saga, Manhattan Projects, and Chew in terms of leading creator-owned books that are more exciting and fascinating than anything being produced at the Big Two.

Dark Horse Presents #15

Written by Michael Avon Oeming, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Carla Speed McNeil, David Chelsea, Erika Alexander, Tony Puryear, John Layman, Bo Hampton, Robert Tinnell, Arvid Nelson, Nate Cosby, Mike Baron, and Kim W. Anderson
Art by Michael Avon Oeming, Phil Noto, Carla Speed McNeil, David Chelsea, Tony Puryear, Sam Kieth, Bo Hampton, Juan Ferreya, Evan Shaner, Steve Rude, and Kim W. Anderson

At this point, I'm pretty sure I would buy Dark Horse Presents every month just for Carla Speed McNeil's Finder.  Were the rest of the book full of stories by Howard Chaykin, Neal Adams (writing his own work), Jeph Loeb, Rob Liefeld, Mark Bagley, and Chuck Austen, I would probably still buy it, and only read McNeil's story.  That's how good Finder is.

In this newest chapter, Jaeger, stuck in the middle of the conflict over an Ascian burial ground, takes on his role as Sin-Eater, in an act that is equally horrifying and noble.  McNeil has often referred to her brilliant science fiction comic as 'aboriginal sci-fi', and that is clearly what is happening here.  It's very good, very powerful stuff.

This issue of DHP also brings back the series Rex Mundi, in a surprise story featuring Brother Moricant.  I'm not sure what all new readers would get from this comic, but it is nice to see Arvid Nelson and Juan Ferreya working together again, and I've always loved the masks that the brothers of the Inquisition wear.

John Layman and Sam Kieth's Aliens story snaps into focus this month, as we finally get a more solid understanding of the female main character.  Layman is not writing a traditional Aliens story at all here, and it's a bit of a shame that it's taken so long for that to become clear.  Were this a mini-series, that could be read in larger chunks, it would have probably worked better.

Michael Avon Oeming's Wild Rover, which gets the cover this month, also becomes clearer and more interesting, as a dark horror story.  Bo Hampton and Robert Tinnell's Riven jumps up a number of years this issue, and continues to build the groundwork for a successful horror tale.

I'm continuing to get a lot of enjoyment out of Tony Puryear's Concrete Park, which jumps all over the place, but is always an engaging read.

Kim W. Anderson gives us another story of twisted love, which works like an old school EC horror story, updated for the Internet age.  David Chelsea gives us an improvisational story with 'The Girl With the Keyhole Eyes', and the newest chapter of Ghost continues to be decent.

I'm glad that there's so much to enjoy in this series beyond the Finder chapter, which makes this a must-buy.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tales From the Barbary Coast

by The Shotgun Wedding Quintet

Imagine if, as a younger man, Tom Waits had eschewed whatever prodigious amounts of drinking and smoking did that to his voice, and instead decided to write intelligent, narrative-based songs for a smaller, jazzier incarnation of the Roots.  That's pretty much the best way I can think of to describe The Shotgun Wedding Quintet's Tales From the Barbary Coast.

Lyricist Dublin rules on the eleven tracks that make up this brilliant little album.  He writes some great stories about wild nights out, being Shanghaied, and hipsterism.  His band, which has a lot of brass, back him perfectly.

The music fits nicely in the tradition started by the Roots, and carried on more recently by bands like Atmosphere, of having live, impressive music for the MC to work with, but there is a literary quality to Shotgun's music that is lacking pretty much anywhere else in hip-hop today.  'White Night Riot' and 'Vertigo' are prime examples of just how smart this album is.

Even though this came out in 2011, it is easily one of my most favourite albums this year.  When people complain that nothing new is happening in hip-hop, this is something to give them.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Conan: Book of Thoth

Written by Kurt Busiek and Len Wein
Art by Kelley Jones

Around the time that Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan were launching their new Conan the Barbarian series, the store I shop at had a small pile of this Conan trade on sale for $5.  Normally, I would have passed right past it, but as I don't know much about Conan, I thought that for that price, it would be worth checking out to get a better understanding of the character and the world.

Conan: Book Of Thoth is not a very good comic.  I suppose from reading the back cover that Thoth is a big-deal bad guy in Conan's world, and this mini-series was written to share his origin.

Thoth starts out life as a beggar and scavenger in the city of Memphia.  He gets beaten by his father, and his small horde of money stolen by bullies.  He's an angry kid.  He has one friend, Amon, who is his exact opposite, showing optimism and kindness.  Amon rescues the life of the city's high priest one day, and is offered a place as a student in the priesthood.  Excited about this prospect, Amon tells Thoth, who immediately kills him and takes his place.

As the years pass, Thoth, now using his dead friend's name, ingratiates himself with all the right people, all the time scheming on how he can one day take over.  There is a lot of stuff involving the evil god Set, and some ancient power, as Amon-Thoth, as he comes to be known, eventually takes over the entire city-state, leading it to war with its neighbours, chaos, and ruin.  He's a bad guy.

My problems with this book are many.  First, it's difficult to read a series with no sympathetic characters to root for.  Thoth is an ass, but no one else gets much space for development, so it's very difficult to care about anything that happens to anyone.  Also, the comics are overly wordy and slow-moving.

The biggest problem though, lies in Kelley Jones's art.  I can remember when Jones first drew Batman, with the gigantic cowl ears and the cape that had a life of its own, and I remember finding his work thrilling.  Now, his art has become a caricature of itself, as he needlessly exaggerates peoples' physical features on a whim.  He does very little to differentiate characters (Amon, Thoth, and the young king Cstephen are often indistinguishable), and characters appear to age or de-age twenty or thirty years on the same page rather randomly.

If there's anything that I take away from reading this trade, it's that my new respect for Brian Wood's Conan need not lead me to backtrack and read the other Dark Horse series that predate it.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Look Around the Corner

by Quantic & Alice Russell with the Combo Bárbaro

It's taken me a long time to figure out where I stand on this album, which brings together the prolific Will Holland, best known as Quantic, with UK vocalist Alice Russell.

When I first heard this album, I wasn't happy with it at all.  I thought it was exceedingly dull, with only moments that shone through.  The more I listened to it though, the more my opinion changed.  I feel like this is an album that couldn't decide what it wanted to be, and it goes through a number of different shifts as it moves from the first track to the last.

The first four songs are just dull.  Russell takes Quantic's music, and makes out of it standard, ephemeral pop confections that do nothing for me.  With the fifth song, 'I'll Keep My Light in My Window', more promise starts to appear, but it is when that song ends and is followed by 'Una Tarde En Mariquita', an instrumental track, that I began to take notice.

I'm sure Russell has her fans, but the truth is, I bought this album for Quantic and the Combo Bábaro.  Their last album together was brilliant, and I wanted to see what they would do in a more pop-friendly setting.  As the disc proceeds past that sixth track, I feel that they are more and more in charge of things, and Russell is working to their ends.  'Su Suzy' is the high-point of this album, but from that track on, things are pretty good.

Revival #2

Written by Tim Seeley
Art by Mike Norton

I don't need to tell anyone that zombies are the thing right now, having squarely replaced vampires in the collective Western consciousness (not that that means people have stopped flooding the world with vampire entertainment), and it's cool to find someone who is doing zombies so differently from everyone else.

In Tim Seeley's town of Wausau Wisconsin, the dead come back to life, but they are just as they were before dying.  These are not shambolic, brain-munching walkers of Romero or Kirkman stories, but are the neighbour you've known for thirty years, going about their usual business.  Except for the old lady who went nuts in a horse barn last issue...

What makes this series work is that it's not about the revivalists, as they're called; no one is fleeing them and trying to survive.  Instead, Seeley is looking into how stuff like that would affect a town.  The whole area is under government quarantine, in an effort to keep the issue from spreading, but aside from that, people are expected to go about their lives.

Our main character is a female cop, whose little sister recently became one of the revived.  They are both trying to keep this a secret from their father, who is the town's sheriff.  We get a good handle on both sisters this issue - Dana suffers from her father's poor opinion of her, and when she can't find approval from him, she finds it from random men that she meets in bars, even when that means she has to leave her son home alone.  Martha, who the father worships, is no less miserable, and her recent brush with death leaves her looking for the type of extreme sensation that can only come from picking a fight with an angry drunk lady.

Seeley drops some other things into this issue.  There's a guy going around performing fake exorcisms, and strange noises in the woods.  All the elements of a strong gothic horror series are coming together perfectly in this book, and Mike Norton does a terrific job of emphasizing the normalcy of small-town living, while still creating a sense of dread.

Bad Medicine #4

Written by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir
Art by Christopher Mitten

Increasingly we hear the phrase 'TV good' being used to describe some comics.  It's sometimes hard to know how to take that - is a book that is 'TV good' good, or is there something a little more backhanded about the compliment?  TV is rarely good, we know that.  Most shows simply grab our attention for a short while, providing diversion and entertainment.  Good shows are the ones you set your PVR for, and the great ones are so rare, you end up talking about them a lot with friends and/or co-workers.

'TV good' comics though?  They are decent, solid reads that can easily be imagined as a TV series.  Bad Medicine falls squarely into that category, being a little bit X-Files, a little bit House, and showing strong, character-based writing, but doesn't quite nail it the way you would hope.

This issue continues the new CDC's extranormal investigative divisions investigation into a werewolf incident in Maine.  The group has concentrated its attention on an odd small town that the werewolf is thought to come from, while the original police officer who dealt with the attack, and the doctor that examined the victim, continue to search for the missing young girl.  Stuff happens, making us think that they lycanthropy is spreading, and that this little town holds the kind of secrets that we, as experienced TV watchers, figured out ages ago.

I do like the characters in this book, especially the combative and prickly doctors.  Christopher Mitten's art is unfortunately difficult to follow in places, but that has always been my complaint about his work - I thought the fact that this series was in colour would make it easier to understand, but that's not always the case.  Still, I'm enjoying Bad Medicine, and were it a show on TV, I would be setting my PVR to make sure I didn't miss an episode.

The Walking Dead #101

Written by Robert Kirkman
Art by Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn

After the excitement and brutality of the last issue, I was curious to see how Kirkman would show the rest of his characters reacting.  In the 100th issue, which set all sorts of sales records for post-90s creator-owned comics, Kirkman killed off a character who has survived being a member of the cast a lot longer than most, in a brutal scene involving Negan, the leader of the Saviors, a group of thugs that terrorize and live off of settlements like the Hilltop.

This issue opens immediately after that scene, and shows the survivors' various reactions to the death.  Rick is blamed, and in typical Rick fashion, blames himself even more.  The group continues to the Hilltop, but don't find much help for themselves, although Jesus, the man who introduced them to that new community, does decide to accompany them back to their Community.

When they get there, they find that the Saviors have been there before them.  Kirkman excels at setting up little surprises like this, which are kind of predictable, yet which still grab you right in the gut when you see them.

I hope that this series retains a number of the new readers who checked it out for the 100th issue.  I imagine that some will be put off by how different things are from the television show, but I also hope that many will recognize this comic's strengths.  It's clear that Kirkman is building his story up to a conflict that will be more intense than the one with the Governor's people a few years ago (or upcoming in Season Three of the show), and I can't wait to see where it all goes.

Saucer Country #6

Written by Paul Cornell
Art by Jimmy Broxton

Saucer Country is turning into a much more complicated and complex series than I first imagined, and where I was enjoying it before, now I'm also starting to respect it at a different level.

Paul Cornell uses this one-off issue as a way to reassess much of what has happened in the series so far, and place it in the larger context of the mythology and legend of UFO encounters and abductions.  Basically, this entire issue is given over to a presentation by the Harvard professor that Governor Alvarado has hired as her election team's inner circle's abduction expert.

In the first arc of this series, we learned that the Governor, who is running for president, and her ex-husband, had been abducted.  We also learned that a number of different interests have a stake in this situation, and that the entire country, if not the world, could be in danger.  The Governor decided that she would use her unique position, access, and political momentum to investigate and hopefully save the day.

So, in this issue, the Professor takes us from the earliest possible alien encounters - Romans meeting the gods, fairies taking humans to their lands, right up through Roswell, Communion, and Spielberg movies.  Through this issue, Cornell explores the social construction of aliens in the mind of the public, and how popular media has influenced it.  He shares the origin of the 'flying saucer' shape, and how it came to be perceived differently after the popularity of The X-Files showed something different.

I haven't spent much time reading about the history of this belief or sub-culture, so I don't know to what extent Cornell is making things up, or is relying on the historical narrative.  Everything he presents (through the character of the Professor) lines up neatly, and appears consistent.

This issue is drawn by Jimmy Broxton, best known for his brilliant work with Cornell on the under-rated Knight & Squire mini-series that DC put out prior to their relaunch.  Broxton uses a variety of styles and approaches to the various strange things he has to draw - I particularly liked the Roy Lichtenstein quality given to the page showing the first UFO sighting.  I love Ryan Kelly's work on this comic, but would not object to Broxton doing the occasional issue.

Even though we are only six issues into this series, this makes a very good jumping on point, especially for anyone with an interest in alien encounters who may not yet be reading this.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Saga #6

Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Fiona Staples

I'm a little surprised that I hadn't noticed the similarities earlier, but with this sixth issue of Saga, finishing up the first story arc of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples's ground-breaking and record-setting new series, I finally figured out what this book reminds me of most - Farscape, the excellent Australian/US TV series of about a decade ago.

In this issue, Marco and Alana find their way to the Rocketship Forest, and acquire for themselves their very own living tree-ship (reminding me of Moya, the Leviathan that serves as vehicle, friend, and main set for the Farscape crew).  Their escape from the planet where their daughter was born goes unnoticed, but Prince Robot IV, their pursuer, figures out where they are headed.  Also, our beleaguered couple have to deal with some unexpected guests.

Vaughan is telling a story that is both wildly fantastical and grounded in strong characterization, which is not something that happens often, in any form of fantasy or science fiction storytelling.  Fiona Staples continues to astound with this series - her designs for the rocketship are phenomenal.

In the letters page, Vaughan explains that this book is going on a brief hiatus before starting the next story arc, to give Staples time to get ahead on the artwork.  While I don't want to go a couple of months before the next issue, I do appreciate the dedication the creators have towards maintaining the consistency and quality of their vision and their work.  This approach is opposite to how things are being done at the Big Two these days, and that is perhaps part of the reason why this series is so successful.

Fatale #8

Written by Ed Brubaker
Art by Sean Phillips

Fatale has already been a spectacular success for Brubaker and Phillips, and I do believe that the book is only getting better with each new issue.  When the series started, I sometimes found it difficult to figure out just how the different characters related to each other, but since this second story arc began, set in the 70s, and introducing a whack of new characters, I find that the book is more compelling than ever before.

Our new hapless male protagonist is Miles, a C-list actor who has found himself on the run from the Method Church, an orgy and black magic cult, after rescuing a friend.  Last issue, they ended up in the home of Josephine, the immortal femme fatale for whom the series is named.  Having seen the video reel that Miles stole from the Method people (presumably some sort of extreme snuff film), Josephine wants a book that they possess, and uses her unnatural wiles to convince Miles to help her get it.

This leads to a great scene in a cemetery at night, and the appearance of more of those guys that have been showing up in every time period shown in this series so far.  Brubaker balances the tension in the comic perfectly once again, and Phillips's art is, as always, fantastic.  Just look at that cover - easily one of the best images Phillips has ever produced.

Pigs #8

Written by Nate Cosby and Ben McCool
Art by Will Sliney

My opinion of this book has wavered a great deal since it began almost a year ago.  The premise and early promise of the series had me excited.  Pigs is about the children of a KGB sleeper cell that was left on Cuba after the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The children have been raised in the mission, and are finally given the signal to activate.  We learned from the beginning that they manage to capture the President of the United States, and at the least, amputate his hand and send it to the authorities.

And then, from that terrific beginning, the series increasingly spun its wheels.  We saw the terrorists come to America and press a former comrade into service, and then we saw them kill a Senator.  After that, way too many issues were spent on the topic of the terrorists having to arrange the murder of a Nazi in a prison.  The comic was becoming increasingly decompressed at the same time that it began to slip off any kind of reliable publishing schedule (the last issue came out in April).

Now though, this issue gives me a sense of hope again.  Since that first issue, we've known that the FBI has a Russian woman named Irisa in a questioning room.  Finally, with this issue, she begins to talk, and fills in the story of just how the original KGB agents decided to have children and to pursue their mission.

My interest is piqued again, and I hope that the remaining four issues (the series is set to end with issue 12, and they have all been solicited) come out in a more timely fashion.

Elephantmen #42

Written by Richard Starkings
Art by Axel Medellin and Dave Sim

A new arc starts with this issue, but once again, Elephantmen is all over the place story-wise; arcs don't much matter in this comic, it's more about theme, and the slow advancement of myriad plot lines.

In this issue, Panya, the dancer who looks just like Sahara, is implanted with an embryo that matches Sahara's - if both women are successful, they will give birth to the first new Elephantmen since Mappo was shut down.  What Sahara doesn't know though is that Panya has recently been with another man - the hired killer known only as The Silencer, opening the possibility that the child may end up being his.

Meanwhile, Hip Flask is investigating the drained river bed where the Silencer has been dumping bodies for years, hoping to find clues as to his identity or location.

Of most interest in this issue is the state of Ebony Hide, who is in hospital recovering from the injuries he received three issues back.  While unconscious, he dreams, and those pages are the ones that Dave Sim drew for the Hero Intiative's 2012 comic a few months back.  It's cool to see them repurposed and worked into the story here, and it's also cool to see Sim's artwork coloured; something that doesn't happen that often.

This comic opens with the text of two laws that were written in the last ten years in America to limit the extent of experimentation with stem cells and human/animal hybridization.  It's kind of strange that Starking waited until now to include this information in the comic, but I guess with the pregnancies taking place, he felt it was appropriate.

This issue also comes with some other goodies.  Starkings revisits his 'English & Media Studies' text-piece with a bit about Arnaldo Putzu, a British comics cover and movie poster artist from the 70s.  The 'Charley Loves Robots' back-up strip is entertaining as always, and there is a preview for Non-Humans, an upcoming series by Glenn Brunswick and Whilce Portacio.  I liked Brunswick's Killing Girl, and while I don't usually enjoy Portacio's work, it looks okay here.  I may be checking this out.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Butcher Baker the Righteous Maker #8

Written by Joe Casey
Art by Mike Huddleston

It's a real shame that the ending of Butcher Baker, Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston's gonzo comics series had to end with some on-line controversy and mud-slinging on the parts of the creators towards each other.  The book is hella late - this issue was solicited for October of last year, and it's a little odd to see Casey lay the blame on the artist, considering how completely screwed up the schedule has been for Godland, Casey's other Image series, for the last two years.

Anyway, I don't read comics for the behaviour of the people who create them, I read them for their own merits, and in that sense, Butcher Baker ends much as it began, in a burst of crazy energy and ideas.

Butcher is a patriotic hero, a cross between Ultimate Captain America, Rambo, and The Comedian, who drives around in an over-sized truck dispensing justice.  This issue has him finish his big confrontation with his old enemy Jihad Jones, deal with the other-worldly threat of The Absolutely, and reach some closure with the small-town cop who has been pursuing him since the series began.

Much of this issue is taken up with the extended fight between Butcher and Jones, both of them naked with their rather large appendages swinging freely.  It's like Casey took his goal of creating the most balls-out crazy action comic he could a little too literally, and you have to respect that.

Mike Huddleston has made this issue well worth the wait, as he continues to blend various styles and colour approaches, and makes every page stand out in a way we haven't seen since Bill Sienkiewicz first made his splash.

Casey's back pages are entertaining as always, and while it's too bad that we won't be seeing more of Butcher, I'm curious to see what Casey has in store for us with his next series, titled simply Sex.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Strangers In Paradise Pocket Book 6

by Terry Moore

While I was reading the fourth and fifth books of the Pocket Book versions of Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise (these nice, chunky editions are the way to read this series), I found myself getting a little bored, as I feared that the series was getting repetitive.  The sixth volume though, is excellent.

This book contains the last fourteen issues of the comic, and Moore used all fourteen issues to wrap the series up in an emotional and satisfying manner.  He resolves the long-running 'will they or won't they' question of Francine and Katchoo's relationship.  Also resolved is the love triangle involving David, Katchoo, and Casey, in a very emotional section of the book.

Often with long running, character-driven series, it's hard to say good-bye to characters that a reader has come to feel a lot of affection for.  I can understand why Moore went for a (mostly) happy ending, and I appreciate it.  The characters that make up the cast of this series are some very lovable people, and it's nice to see them all get a chance to shine and show their better nature.  Even Freddie Femur, the bumbling lawyer and misogynist freak gets a chance to demonstrate maturity and kindness.  Tambi, the amazon warrior demonstrates a softer side as well, and Casey becomes a very likeable character over the course of the book. 

Reading this volume on its own is impossible, so I would strongly recommend checking out this series from the beginning.  Getting through the two volumes that drag a little is worth it when you come to this volume.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Punk Rock Jesus #2

by Sean Murphy

I enjoyed the last issue of Punk Rock Jesus, but I feel like Sean Murphy really brought his A-game to this issue.  There is so much to like about this series.  In it, Murphy has put together a reality show, called J2, around the idea that Jesus Christ has been cloned, and has been born to an 18-year old virgin girl who was carefully selected (and then surgically altered to reflect the correct demographics.

This issue takes place six months into the project.  Young Chris has become a media star, despite the fact that he has no contact with anyone other than his mother, his doctor, and the security personnel that protect the J2 island compound from incursions by the NAC - the New American Christians, who are opposed to the show and all it represents.  When the issue opens, Thomas McKael, the director of security and former IRA soldier, attacks them as they blockade the island.

From there, we learn that Gwen, Chris's mother, is having a hard time dealing with her celebrity, basic incarceration, and postpartum depression.  She's begun drinking, and is unable to understand why her family hasn't visited.  Geneticist Dr. Epstein (don't remember her first name) is worried about her, and announces her own pregnancy.  Eventually, McKael takes Gwen out for a spin, to try to cheer her up, although that doesn't go so well.

There's a lot happening in this comic.  Murphy uses a Larry King type character to show us how the media is responding to Chris, and his first two miracles, and it's increasingly clear to everyone that the people behind J2 care nothing about anything other than profit.  No mention is made about the surprise ending of the last issue, although I'm sure that has something to do with Epstein's announcement.

Murphy's art is great, and while I still suspect that the book's black and white presentation was a cost-cutting move on DC's part, I like it a lot, and don't even mind the cheaper paper stock used.  This is well worth picking up.

American Vampire: Lord of Nightmares #3

Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Dustin Nguyen

We all knew that eventually Scott Snyder would have no choice but to get around to dealing with Dracula, and I like the way it's being handled.  The big D is the name commonly given to the 'Prime Carpathian', or the sire of an entire species of vampires, much like Skinner Sweet is to the American Vampire.  Dracula has been taken by the Soviets, and fed a little blood, which means he has the ability to influence any vampires in his line, and at times, even control humans.  This does not work out well for the Soviets.

At the same time, Dracula tries to use Gus, Cash McCogan's son, to kill Agent Hobbes, although unsuccessfully.  This leads Hobbes and Felicia Book to travel to Germany, to seek out The Firsts, a group of vampires from older lines who have been hiding throughout Europe. 

Even though we are half-way into the series, Snyder is still setting up a lot, as the conflict between the Firsts and the Carpathians is going to be the central focus of the book from this point on.  Book is a great character though, and the story flows really well.

Dustin Nguyen has been killing it on this book.  During an extended conversation between Hobbes and Book, Nguyen borrows a tool from Eduardo Risso's bag of tricks, and shows us a scene involving animals in the snow, which perfectly encapsulates the tone and feel of this series.  It's good stuff.

Wasteland #39

Written by Antony Johnston
Art by Sandy Jarrell

A new issue of Wasteland is always a small cause for celebration, but I especially like the one-off issues that Johnston always writes between longer story arcs.  This issue takes us further back than we've ever been in this series, with a story set just ten years after the 'Big Wet', the disaster that changed the entire world.

This story is centred on Michael, Marcus, and Mary, as a trio of children (they look to be about twelve to fourteen years old) as they travel through the wasteland the world has become.  These names are familiar to regular readers of the book.  Michael is the ruinrunner who is the series's main character.  Marcus becomes the ruler of Newbegin, a walled city that is probably the pinnacle of human civilization in this world, but he runs it as a dictator.  Mary is his consort, who only recently arrived in the city, having led an army of Sand-Eaters in an attack before switching sides. 

This issue shows the three kids as allies, if not quite friends.  There is a rivalry between Marcus and Michael, although Michael doesn't particularly care about it.  It's clear that Marcus is in love with Mary, but she is more interested in Michael.  When a group of scavengers find them, and decide that they would like to take the girl, things get interesting, especially when Marcus has a vision of Michael killing Mary.

Wasteland has had a number of artists since Christopher Mitten made his departure (there is yet another artist coming on board for the next arc).  I've never heard of Sandy Jarrell before, but I like his work here.  It fits nicely with the look Mitten established for the book - scratchy and as sparse as the landscape, although still capable of telling a clear story.  I like Jarrell's work much more than I did Justin Greenwood's, and I hope we see him on this book again.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Godzilla: The Half-Century War #1

by James Stokoe

Much like Conan before Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan came along, Godzilla is not a character or comics property I have any interest in.  Why then am I buying this latest IDW mini-series with such a sense of excitement?  James Stokoe.

Stokoe first caught my eye with his Wonton Soup English-language manga series at Oni, but it is his Orc Stain that really exposed the depth of his comics genius.  That series, which chronicles the adventures of a nameless one-eyed Orc who may have a role in fulfilling some great prophecy, has been on a hiatus for a while, and so I'm happy to get my fix of Stokoe with this book.

Stokoe excels at pages filled with finely detailed mayhem.  His work is like a cross between Geof Darrow and Brandon Graham, and it is never boring.  This series is about a Japanese soldier, Lieutenant Ota Murakami, who first encounters Godzilla in 1954, when the monster first attacks Tokyo.  Murakami and his friend are able to protect a large number of evacuating civilians by distracting the monster, and later they are offered a job which, we are told, leads to Murakami spending half a century dealing with the giant radioactive lizard.

Story and character are secondary to visuals here, and Stokoe does not disappoint.  There are some excellent scenes of Tokyo being devastated, and the book is fun, inventive read.  I look forward to the next issue (even though I'd rather be reading Orc Stain).

Conan the Barbarian #7

Written by Brian Wood
Art by Becky Cloonan

Two Becky Cloonan comics in the same week?  It's like the comic book gods knew it was my birthday this week or something...

This issue begins a new arc on Conan - Border Fury - which has everyone's favourite barbarian return home to Cimmeria, because he has heard rumours that someone is going around killing his countrymen and putting the credit for it in his name.  Of course, being Conan, he's there to track down and kill whoever this person is.

What makes this issue interesting is that Conan has brought Belit with him.  While in the south seas, and while on her boat, Belit is feared and revered in equal measures, but here in Cimmeria, she is just a foreign girl, ill-suited for the environment.  Wood and Cloonan do a terrific job of conveying the discomfort and rage Belit feels, and also do well at showing the conflict within Conan between his loyalty to his people and his need to protect his lover.

This arc feels much like Wood's Northlanders to me, but that would be because I'm not all that familiar with Conan, and so immediately read the cold and harsh landscape as being somewhere Vikings would have lived.  As always, this is a very entertaining and beautiful comic.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Massive #3

Written by Brian Wood
Art by Kristian Donaldson

I love The Massive.  I can understand why some on-line reviewers have chosen to complain about how exposition-heavy this first arc has been, but I think it's understandable when you consider the length to which Brian Wood has altered our current world. 

Basically, a string of natural disasters and environmental catastrophes have created great upheaval throughout the world, upending established social orders.  The series follows a small group of ecological activists (some would say terrorists) as they search for the other ship that makes up their fleet, for their friends aboard it, and for a way to continue their mission of environmental protection and conservation in the face of global calamity.  Without the frequent examples and explanations that Wood has provided over these first three issues, the magnitude of change would not be properly understood.

This issue, which finishes off the first arc, is a little anti-climactic compared to the other two, but it feels necessary in that it helps establish just how the crew of The Kapital has been able to resupply and keep running where so many other ships have fallen apart.  It also provides some insight into just how Callum Israel, leader of the Ninth Wave, is seen by his crew.

Wood excels at this type of book.  Kristian Donaldson's art is crisp and clear, and the book is intelligent and exciting to read.  I hope this is getting enough attention in comic stores, and that it gets a nice long run.

Blue Estate #12

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

Blue Estate has been a truly unique comic experience, and with this issue, Viktor Kalvachev brings his experimental approach to a very satisfying conclusion.

There is no easy way to summarize or encapsulate all that has led up to this issue, except to say that through a long string of coincidences, bumbles, and fate, a large group of people have, when this book opens, converged on a termite-infested house, and, with few exceptions, are all looking to kill one another.  There are Russian and Italian mobsters, idiot sons, police, hitmen, private eyes, and Hollywood starlets all caught up in the mix.

This issue is full of the bizarre and violent deaths, and the strange coincidences (ie., a gangster escapes bullets and police, only to run into a football player he had his men brutalize months earlier) that have made this book such an entertaining read.  It also wraps up every storyline I can remember, and dangles the secret of the beluga, without explaining just what that mythical sex act really is.

What has made this comic so unique is the rotating roster of artists who have contributed different pages or panels.  Kalvachev has brought together some of the most interesting artists in the business, and has melded their different styles in such a way as to give the book a consistent look and feel, even when the styles used usually would clash.

I highly recommend picking this series up in trade.  I can't wait for the second season to begin...

Blacksad

Written by Juan Díaz Canales
Art by Juanjo Guarnido

 I kind of expected Blacksad, published here in English by the fine people at Dark Horse, to be a pretty standard noirish private eye comic, featuring talking animals acting as people.  That's basically what this book is, but it is just about the best possible form of that.

There are three stories in this European-sized hardcover, each a self-contained tale although they are told sequentially.  John Blacksad is a private eye who investigates stuff, like so many of his literary, pulp, and comic book forebears.  In the first story, he gets involved when an old girlfriend, an actress, turns up dead.  In the second, he searches for a missing girl, and in the third, he tries to help an old mentor who has been marked for death.  All standard stuff, except for the quality in which the stories are told.

These are some very well-written stories.  Writer Díaz Canales sets these stories in post-war America, and makes very good use of the talking animal element to flesh out his tales.  In the second story, Arctic Nation, the young girl's disappearance is connected to racial tensions, caused by white supremacist animals who make up the upper class and the police department, and directed towards black animals, especially the Black Claws gang, an analog of the Black Panthers.  One would assume that the easiest way to portray racial difference would be to have different species of animal stand in for races, much like Art Spiegelman did with Maus, but instead, Díaz Canales sticks with colour as the dividing line, and so a white cat is treated as different than a black cat, at least in that city.  It adds some texture to things, as we have a hero with a white muzzle, who has an established aversion to rats.  So this is a society where intolerance is even more ingrained and complex than in ours.

Juanjo Guarnido's art is wonderful, in that European way, and displays great detail, especially in terms of the time period shown.  I was very impressed with this book, and am happy to know that Dark Horse is publishing more of these.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Black Radio

by Robert Glasper Experiment

Robert Glasper's Black Radio is easily one of my favourite albums of 2012.  I've been playing this disc to bits since I got it back in the spring, and continue to be impressed with the range of talent Glasper brought together for this album.

Here are a list of the collaborators:  Shafiq Husayn, Erykah Badu, Lalah Hathaway, Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), among others.  Each artist, except for Bilal, appears on a single song.

There are a mix of covers and new material.  Badu does some amazing things with the old Mongo Santamaria jazz standard 'Afro Blue', and Bilal gives us a very different take on David Bowie's 'Letter to Hermione'.  The album ends with a slow, strange instrumental rendition of Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'.  Lalah Hathaway's 'Cherish the Day' is every bit as good as Sade's original.

In terms of new music, the fourth track, 'Always Shine', featuring Bilal and Lupe Fiasco does just that.  It's easily the best I've ever heard from Fiasco, proving what I've always thought - that it's because of the beats he raps over that I don't usually like his work.  Yasiin Bey also impresses with 'Black Radio', showing that the change in name has done nothing to dampen his skills on the mic. What makes this album work so well is the consistency of Glasper's vision.  

Every track on this album is good, and the cumulative effect of taking us through the best of what 'Black Radio' has to offer is powerful. 

In My Home There is No More Sorrow: Ten Days in Rwanda

by Rick Bass

When I got the latest issue of McSweeney's, bundled with it was In My Home There Is No More Sorrow, a travelogue of sorts by Rick Bass, detailing his short trip to Rwanda in 2011. Bass travelled to Rwanda with his wife, daughter, and close friend, writer Terry Williams, to assist her in a two-day workshop for writers at a university in Kigali.

Bass opens the book with a visit to some of the churches that have been made into memorials for the genocide that took place there in 1994.  These churches were promised as safe havens for Tutsis looking to escape slaughter at the hands of their Hutu neighbours, but they were in fact used to corral the victims more easily.  Many of these sites have been turned into memorials, displaying skulls and bones, bloody clothing, or in one instance, the barely-decayed bodies of the dead.

Bass visits these sites as an American outsider, and his perspective is probably the only one I would be able to relate to.  His guide at one site, who he discovers wishes to be a writer herself, becomes a central figure in the book, with her quiet determination and dignity.

The writers' workshop takes up the centre of the book, and it is probably the only instance I can think of where a discussion of writing has ever affected me as emotionally as this one has.  Bass and Williams recognize that their contribution is small, but they are in a country with no publishing infrastructure at all.  The young writers that make up the audience do not have any outlet for the stories and poems they write largely for themselves, although they desperately crave one.  When one student takes Williams to task for avoiding the difficult issue of the genocide, she returns the next day determined to open a door into the traumatic childhoods of the participants.  It's like opening a floodgate, legitimizing their feelings and need to tell their stories.  This part of the book is immensely powerful.

Following the workshop, the author and his group travel to the north, to visit the national park where Dian Fossey studied gorillas, and so that the Americans can see some themselves.  Bass is an incredible writer, and he conveys a great amount of wonder in this part of the book.  The family tries to find their lodge in the middle of nowhere on their own in the dark, and the apprehension of Bass's passengers, as he drives along switchback roads in the middle of the night near the border to Uganda is palpable.  Even better though, is the writing about the next day, when they travel into the jungle and observe a group of gorillas at play.

There are two things this book does exceptionally well.  It gives a small platform for Rwandan writers to share their stories.  There are four pieces (three poems and one story) by the participants in the workshop included at the end of the book.  While they are not quite as strong as they could technically be, they mark the first time that I've read actual Rwandans writing about the genocide.  Prior to this, the only accounts I've read have come from North American writers (I cannot recommend Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families enough), so it's good to experience that authentic response.

The other thing that Bass does well here is show us that Rwanda is not what it once was.  We are given example after example of happy, well-adjusted people, a vibrant social life, and pride in what the country has to offer (while being very realistic about the state of its ecology).  The people are shown as kind and solicitous, eager to help or look after visitors from another place.  Reading this book makes me want to visit the country, and especially go see the gorillas before there are none left.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 6

Written by Eiji Otsuka
Art by Housui Yamazaki

I think this is the strangest volume of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service that I've read so far.  A usual volume has four to six chapters, which are usually self-contained stories, but occasionally a story will take up two or three chapters.  This volume has six chapters, and tells a total of three stories, one of which doesn't feature any of the regular characters in this comic.

The first story has the group, which carries out the last wishes of the recently deceased, and takes their corpses where they want to go, return to their roots, in Japan's famous Aokigahara Forest, where many people go to commit suicide.  The problem is, there aren't many corpses to be found, as the local postal office has begun branching out into the Kurosagi's territory, by offering their own corpse delivery service.

In the next story, a woman's body is discovered in an apartment.  When the Kurosagi group show up to offer their services, they discover that a new rival, the Shirosagi Corpse Cleaning Service has beaten them to the scene.  There's something odd about these Shirosagi people though, as we learn when another body is found in the attic to the apartment (found only after Numata, the KCDS's dowser, moves into the apartment for its cheap rent).  This leads to a long story which is not fully resolved in this volume, a first for this series.

After that, there are two chapters of a gaiden story.  This is translated as a 'side story', something peculiar to Japanese comics.  This one is set in the past, around the beginning of the 20th century, and involves a killer murdering women in Tokyo.  It is especially notable for two reasons - it brings the Jack the Ripper myth to Japan, and it features a young boy with some strange abilities who has facial scars matching those of the ghost that is always protecting Karatsu.  It's a good story, but it only makes me more curious to find out what the connection between this child and Karatsu is.

This book is always a good read, and that has not changed with this volume.  I love the way that Otsuka blends humour into his horror, and continue to appreciate the editor's notes in the back, which cover most of the cultural references that don't otherwise translate into English.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Myriad of Now

by Hawthorne Headhunters

I've had Myriad of Now in pretty heavy rotation for the last few months.  It's a collaboration between Black Spade and Coultrain, and it runs the gamut of beat-driven, heavy hip-hop, lighter sung and rapped songs, and some very nice instrumental tracks.

Black Spade is an artist I'd admired since I first came across his work on Nicolay's first album, and Coultrain is someone I've always been aware of from a number of Waajeed's Bling 47 projects.  They compliment each other perfectly on this album.

Much of the production is handled by Black Spade (in his guise as Stoney Rock), and by I, Ced (who I'll admit I've never heard of).  There is also a track by Dam Funk, but unlike a lot of the stuff he does for Stones Throw, I actually like this.

Stand-out tracks include 'Sum People Don't Change', which opens the album, 'If U Were My Baby', 'Yellow Cougar', 'No Cryin' Now, No Lyin Down', 'Fairweather', which features Von Pea and Haz Solo, and 'Hole in the World'.

This album is highly recommended.

I Am A Japanese Writer

by Dany Laferrière

There are certain things that I've come to expect from a Dany Laferrière novel, and this novel did not deliver any of them.  I haven't decided if that's a good thing yet or not, as I do like my traditional Laferrières, but that doesn't mean I think the author shouldn't change and grow.

I Am a Japanese Writer doesn't really have a plot - it weaves and meanders, and contradicts itself at times, and is really more about identity than it is story.  The narrator (who for a change I don't feel is really Laferrière) sells his publisher on his new novel just by giving him the name - I Am A Japanese Writer.  It's a bold statement for a Haitian-born writer who has settled in Montreal to make, and it has unexpected consequences.

Having decided that he is a Japanese writer, the narrator sets about making it true, which means he spends long stretches of time reading Basho, the 17th Century Japanese poet, and musing on the writings of Yukio Mishima.  He also decides to meet some real Japanese people, and becomes a little fixated on a group of university-age girls.

His story becomes known to the cultural affairs people at the Japanese embassy, and soon enough the narrator has become a cultural phenomenon in Japan itself, despite the book's having never been written.  People begin calling him from Tokyo nightclubs, and he is interviewed for the television.  Through all of this, all he wants to do is give his landlord a hard time about the rent and read for hours on end in the bathtub.

As I said, Laferrière is all over the place with this book.  About thirty pages in, I was convinced that I was reading a book by William T. Vollmann and not Laferrière, as he was rambling in a very Vollmann-esque way (I think it was the introduction of the Japanese girls that did it).  Still, I found it very easy to get wrapped up in Laferrière's odd ideas, and enjoyed the notion that, in our increasingly cosmopolitan world, a Caribbean writer can declare himself an Asian one.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Mind the Gap #3

Written by Jim McCann
Art by Rodin Esquejo and Sonia Oback

The thought of building a series around a woman in a coma sounds a little boring, doesn't it?  Yet, Mind The Gap is anything but, as Jim McCann continues to weave a strange web of deceit and conspiracy around Elle as she lies in her hospital bed, doing everything she can to contact the world outside of her mind.

This issue doesn't build as much on the mysteries of the last two, and instead introduces other new story elements, such as the house that Elle retreats to in The Garden, the shared mindspace of other coma victims, and the Memory Wall, upon which she is able to project some of the shards of her shattered mind.

As this series progresses, I find that I want to see much more of Dr. Geller than I do any other character, but that's mostly because she has been the most proactive, in trying to treat Elle, and in trying to figure out what is going on with her colleague, Dr. Hammond, who seems to be working his own agenda here.

The story is smooth, as is Rodin Esquejo's art.  I'm also really liking the variant covers to this series (Esquejo's covers look too much like issues of Morning Glories), especially Skottie Young's contribution this month.