Thursday, December 26, 2013

Escalator

by Brandon Graham

I've been a big Brandon Graham fan since first learning about his work a little while after the first volume of King City came out.  This book, Escalator, collects a number of his earlier comics stories, and it is pretty fantastic from cover to cover.

When I think of Graham's work, I always think of strange and complicated futuristic cities, characters who just seem to get by living in the urban environment, and endless sight gags and puns.  All of that is represented here, and the book makes me feel like I'm watching Graham figure out a number of things as a writer and an artist.

In one story, a writer is just trying to get some work done when interrupted by a demon or something, who is trying to take his soul.  In another strip, a couple hang out on their balcony.  In another story, a young artist and his friend tag trains.

There is definitely an autobiographical feel to much of this book.  In one strip, young Graham is having a hard time making things work for himself, and can't help but realize that while he's climbing stairs to a friend's walk-up that he's crashing at, Moebius is probably dreaming of crystals.

This is a very enjoyable book, and a must-have for anyone who has enjoyed King City or Multiple Warheads (there is a MW short here too).  If you only know Graham from his amazing writing on Prophet, this is still worth checking out, as you can connect the dots from that work to this.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Saviors #1

Written by James Robinson
Art by J. Bone

We all know the score these days - Image Comics launches a new series, everyone gets really excited about it, there's some action on the after-market, and the world is just a little bit richer for it all.  This has been going on for a while now - it was a trend even before Saga dropped.  What I've liked best about this is the novelty of the books that have been appearing, and the quality of the creators involved.

This year, as the only book being published by Image this week, we get the first issue of a new collaboration between James Robinson, who is best known for his work on Starman at DC comics, and cartoonist extraordinaire, J. Bone, who has worked all over the place at different times.

This series is set in a tiny, dusty desert town.  Right from the beginning, we are introduced to Tomas, a bit of a layabout who loves his town, loves getting high, and finds that life generally treats him pretty well.  He has a big drugged-out heart-to-heart with a lizard while smoking up one day, and later, while under the influence, manages to convince himself that the town's Sheriff is actually a lizard-man, or an alien, or something.  Of course, this being comics, the cop is most definitely a lizard-man, and he comes after Tomas for knowing too much.

Most of this issue is given over to the typical first issue stuff - we get a real strong sense of place and character from this issue, and Robinson and Bone work very well together to establish that.  Tomas's ongoing narration lets us understand him perfectly, while Bone's art makes the town a very familiar place.  Robinson's writing reminds me a little of his Leave It To Chance series, although this is a more 'mature' title.

I'm definitely looking forward to seeing where this series takes us.  Robinson has been hit-or-miss in the years since Starman ended, but this series is different enough from that work that I get a real positive vibe off of it.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Hawken: Melee #2

by Jim Mahfood

In such a busy new comics week as this last one was, it would be very easy to overlook something like this comic, but luckily, I noticed that Jim Mahfood was writing and drawing a video game comics tie-in.  I guess this Hawken: Melee series is a series of one-off issues, although it appears that the other issues are a little more traditional in their creators.

This issue, however, has Jim Mahfood doing a science fiction comic.  I couldn't possibly pass it up.  I have no idea what this Hawken stuff is all about, but it looks like it involves people fighting each other in walking battle tank things.

The story is about a single pilot, Lance Armourstrong, who while skilled, is a complete narcissist and liability to his team.  When the comic opens, we see Lance out for a night on the town with his fellow pilots, who are quietly plotting against him.

Mahfood is a master cartoonist, and it's a real treat to see him handle something like this.  He brings a hip-hop sensibility to everything he touches, and I like seeing how that applies to a project that would have presumably had a fair amount of direction from the game makers.

I hope to see more things like this coming from the newly revitalized Archaia (of course, I'd be even happier to see them finish off more of extant and unfinished projects like The Secret History).

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Leaving Megalopolis

Written by Gail Simone
Art by Jim Calafiore

Living in Canada has made participation in most Kickstarter campaigns prohibitively expensive, as the shipping rates for graphic novels have become a touch exorbitant over the last couple of years (thank you Peak Oil).  When I saw that Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore, the creators behind The Secret Six, my favourite DC comic of the new century, were collaborating on a creator-owned graphic novel though, and that they had priced it reasonably, I was more than happy to support the endeavour.

Leaving Megalopolis is the kind of book you would expect from these two, were they not fettered by corporate sensibility.  The story is set in a city filled with powered heroes, which gives it the reputation of being the safest city in the United States.  Something has happened though, and it's turned all of the heroes into killers with no respect for the human lives they had previously spent so much time protecting.  Now, they roam the city searching for people who have been hiding out, and force people to turn on one another to survive for a day or two longer.

The closest we come to a hero in this book is Mina, a police officer (maybe) who starts to pull together a small group of people to try to escape the city limits.  As we follow them from one disturbing scene to another (this book doesn't reach Crossed levels of gore, but it comes close), we are shown flashbacks to various stages of Mina's life, and come to appreciate her as the sort of complex female character that Simone writes so well.

Jim Calafiore is one of those excellent artists who, I've felt, doesn't get near the recognition he deserves.  He has a strong sense of character in his figures, although I started to wonder if some of the Kickstarter rewards involved getting backers drawn into the book, as a few people looked very photo-referenced in places.  He also writes and draws a backup story that helps flesh out a few of the super-powered characters we see in passing earlier in the book.

In all, this is a very capable graphic novel.  There has already been some talk on-line about revisiting these characters and this location, which doesn't seem like it would be too easy to do, but I do know that I'll be there to support any future collaborations between this duo.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Orenda

by Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden is one of my favourite contemporary authors, and I was pretty excited to dive into The Orenda, his newest novel.  It is set in 17th century Huronia, and is narrated by three people whose lives have become intertwined, despite the way they feel about one another.

Bird is a Wendat (Huron) warrior whose family was taken from him in an assault by a group of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).  While travelling one summer, Bird and his group come across a Haudenosaunee family and slaughter them, taking with them a young girl as a hostage.  Later, Bird chooses to adopt this girl, named Snow Falls, as his own daughter.  Our third narrator is Father Cristophe, a Jesuit priest sent to live among the Wendat to learn their ways and to convert them to Christianity.

The novel is basically a chronicle of how contact with Europeans led to the downfall of the Wendat people.  Christophe means well, but he brings disease into the community, and sows distrust.  Bird frequently wishes to kill him, but as the Wendat become more dependent on the tools, weapons, and favour of the Iron People of Kebec, he has no choice but to protect the priest, and eventually grow to admire him.

Snow Falls cannot harbour her anger towards Bird forever, and over the course of the book we watch her grow into an independent and strong woman.  Bird is the most unchanged person, yet he is the one who most fully has to absorb the brunt of the changes brought to his people as they are devastated by sickness, and subjected to increasingly harsh and large skirmishes with the Haudenosaunee.

Basically, Boyden has written a fictionalized accounting of what happened at Ste. Marie Among the Hurons, a Jesuit mission founded on the shores of Lake Huron.  Christophe is a stand-in for Father Jean de Brebéuf, and meets an incredibly similar fate.  He does a terrific job of recreating the society and values of the Wendat people, bringing their culture back to life, and not bogging down the story too much in exposition.

Having studied this time period, and having read other novels such as Brian Moore's Black Robe and William T. Vollmann's utterly superb Fathers and Crows, much of what was on display here felt familiar and perhaps a little predictable.  When Boyden had his priests pull out the Captain of the Day, a wind-up clock used to mystify and command potential converts, I groaned a little, thinking of the Captain Clock scenes in the film version of Black Robe.  I don't know if this was a common trick, or something that was invented for the film, but I found it a bit repetitive here.

Still, despite all that, this is an incredible study of three people in a time that we don't think of often enough in this country.  Boyden's mastery of their voices, and the inevitable violent ending to this book kept me riveted throughout.  I especially liked the small nod to his other novels, which felt like a bit of a reward for loyal readers.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Letter 44 #2

Written by Charles Soule
Art by Alberto Alburquerque

When this new series debuted last month, I found the first issue to be very exciting, and very well balanced between exposition and character development.  Now, this second issue has me even more excited about the future of this series.

A small group of scientists and military personnel have been sent on a multi-year mission, a one-way trip, to the outer reaches of our solar system to investigate what looks like an alien mining operation.  The framework for this series is that new President of the United States, its 44th, has just become aware of what has been going on, and is trying to figure out how to respond to it while maintaining his political ideals, and trying to fix a country that has been brought to the point of economic and diplomatic ruin.

In this issue, the astronauts have crossed through a sensor-jamming barrier created by the aliens.  This has shorted out their vessel, requiring repairs, and gives us readers a chance to get to know the characters a lot better.  This is not a typical Hollywood blockbuster where the characters need only fit vague stereotypes; instead, writer Charles Soule has provided more than enough material for storylines to take place within the ship that don't necessarily have to be about the aliens.

At the same time, President Blades is getting up to speed on the technological advances the US has made (and is sitting on) to help them with this mission, and to defend against the aliens should they choose to come and attack Earth.

I really like the way Soule is balancing this book, and the way that artist Alberto Alburquerque is depicting things.  I know that there has been a lot of interest in this series, especially since news came out of a television deal, and I urge people to pick this up; it's a very good comic.

Black Science #1

Written by Rick Remender
Art by Matteo Scalera

I am very happy to see that Rick Remender is returning to Image Comics with new creator-owned work.  I've been enjoying his stuff at Marvel (Uncanny X-Force is a modern classic), but have missed seeing what he comes up with without any fetters or editorial hindrances.

The first issue of Black Science is an exciting study in how to launch a new series.  The issue is narrated by Grant McKay, a scientist who has led a group of people, including a financial backer and his wife and kids, on some sort of inter-dimensional journey.  The comic opens with Grant and a friend, Jen, racing through an alien landscape to return to their group before their device jumps everyone to another dimension.  Grant needs to fill the device with clean water, or everyone will be vaporized when the machine starts working (it's a MacGuffin, but an effective one).

The world they are in is definitely strange.  They are being chased by fish people outside of a temple that is on a giant turtle's back.  Grant makes his way into the temple, which is populated by frog people who can fire some sort of electric charge from their tongues.

What makes this issue so effective is Grant's narration, as he reflects on some of his life choices, such as the decision to devote his life to the study of 'black science', and the effect it has had on his family.  He is determined to save them, as the clock runs down, but he keeps running into obstacles.

Much of this book reminded me of Remender's classic Fear Agent comic.  In it, Heath Huston has been all but destroyed by the mistakes he made trying to keep his family safe in the wake of alien invasion.  In this book, Grant (which, if I'm not mistaken, was Heath's son's name) has the opportunity to proactively avoid Heath's fate, and I imagine that's what most of the drama of the series will spring from.

Matteo Scalera is an excellent collaborator for Remender on this book.  He's capable of taking the wildest ideas, and making them equally plausible and even wilder.  There is a Dan Brereton feel to some of his character designs, but the kinetic energy of each page is definitely Scalera's.  If the group keeps jumping to different dimensions every couple of issues, I imagine that we're going to see some pretty wild stuff in this book.

I like the way Remender introduces the rest of the group, immediately sowing suspicion that someone is working at cross-purposes to everyone else, and quickly outlining rivalries and jealousies.  I feel that there is going to be a lot of fertile ground to explore in this reworking of the Lost in Space concept.  I already can't wait for the next issue.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Get Jiro!

Written by Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose
Art by Langdon Foss

I don't follow celebrity chefs or the whole 'foodie' movement, so I didn't pick up this comic because Anthony Bourdain's name was on the cover.  I grabbed it because Vertigo graphic novels are reliable, and because Langdon Foss's art looked intriguing.

Get Jiro! is set in a near-future Los Angeles where social and political power has been placed in the hands of two competing chefs.  Bob is at the centre of a massive conglomerate of restaurants, and is one of those chefs who cares little for minor concerns like species endangerment in his quest to cook what he wants.  Rose, on the other hand, is a firm believer in eating locally and sustainably (at least, in public).

Between the two is Jiro, a sushi chef who operates a tiny restaurant on the outskirts of the city.  After slicing off the heads of some customers who have ordered California Rolls and dipped their rice in soy sauce, Jiro finds himself on both super-chefs' radars.  As they try to enlist him, he in turn sees an opportunity to disrupt the power structure and give more independent chefs freedom.

The book is pretty entertaining, and at times quite bloody.  The writers give just enough exposition for the setting to be clear, and let things roll out at a good pace.  Langdon Foss's art is terrific.  He has the detail of a Frank Quitely or Geof Darrow, but with a more animated style.

I really wish Vertigo made more OGNs like this.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Sex Criminals #3

Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Chip Zdarsky

Sex Criminals is easily the funniest, most touching, and most surprising comic on the stands today.  Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky have found the perfect blend of humour, character development, titillation, and irreverence in this new series.

Suzie and Jon, who have only just met, have the strange ability to stop time when they orgasm.  Neither has ever met anyone else who can do this, and now that they've found each other, they are curious to see where their new relationship might need.  Which includes using their ability to rob banks, as we keep seeing in the comics' framing sequences.

Most of this issue is given over to the rest of Jon's growth and development, including his first time with a woman (his first time with a man gets some space too).  As the issue progresses, we get to see the new couple's first visit to Cumworld, the porn-store that Jon has been frequenting since his pubescent days (complete with a dildo-fight), and a musical number in a pool hall.  Trust me, the musical number, which has the lyrics to a Queen song covered by Matt Fraction's discussion of why they couldn't use the lyrics to the Queen song, is worth buying the book for alone.

Zdarsky peppers this book with hilarious little visual gags (I'd like to know how much time he's spent imagining Cumworld), while still making such a ridiculous concept feel perfectly realistic.

As great as this comic is, it's only enhanced by the best letters page in comics, since at least the early days of Powers at Image.  The readers that write in treat this book as something between a traditional superhero comic and Dan Savage's advice column.  Brilliant, disturbing stuff all around.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

King David

by Kyle Baker

I'm not sure how it is that I never knew that this book existed, as a new Kyle Baker release is usually something that gets a lot of press, but this Vertigo graphic novel that was released in 2002 completely missed showing up on my radar until just recently.

King David is Baker's take on the Biblical figure, who fought Goliath, earned the enmity of King Saul, and eventually became a terrible leader for Israel.  I am woefully ignorant of the details of pretty much all Bible stories, and so much of this was new to me (or vaguely familiar).  For that reason, I can't say to what degree Baker was taking liberties with his story, but I did enjoy the way he used contemporary vernacular in the historical setting.

Baker's art is both wonderful, and wonderfully odd.  He has constructed many of his backgrounds digitally, and has put an odd amount of detail into them.  His character work reads and looks great, but there are some pretty big issues with the pacing of the book.

In all, this is a very odd project, but I enjoyed it for that reason.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The 'Nam Vol. 3

Written by Doug Murray
Art by Wayne Vansant, Sam Glanzman, Michael Golden, Geoff Isherwood, and Frank Springer

Two weeks ago, I read GB Tran's brilliant family memoir Vietnamerica, and I couldn't think of a better follow up than the third trade of Marvel's mid-80s series The 'Nam, which set out to tell the story of the Vietnam War, from an American perspective, in real time.

This trade encompasses the Tet Offensive, and many of the major events, such as the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, that gripped Americans in 1968.  As always, this series explores the war through a very narrow lens, focussing on one infantry brigade, and the people who interact with them.

There is not much effort to understand the war from the Vietnamese perspective; the locals are portrayed as either the enemy or as interchangeable assistants, but that's not the goal of this series.  Instead, it is to give the reader a more or less realistic understanding of what the American soldiers had to go through.  We see them piling in and out of helicopters, taking fire from unseen positions, and having to deal with the absurdity of rules of engagement that allowed the Viet Cong to disappear into Cambodia with impunity.

Writer Doug Murray does a great job of building characters slowly and episodically, as new soldiers join the 23rd Brigade frequently.  He's helped a great deal by Wayne Vansant, who is the most consistent artist on this book, and who excels at balancing a loose cartoonish style with the difficulty of the setting and situations he has to draw.  Michael Golden provides two black-and-white stories at the end of the book that are gorgeous.


It seems that Marvel has stopped collecting this series in trade, and that means I need to start tracking down the individual issues, as I really want to see where this series ends up.  

Monday, October 28, 2013

Vietnamerica: A Family's Journey

by GB Tran

I don't understand how Vietnamerica: A Family's Journey, which was released in 2010, did not get a lot more press, good reviews, and recognition in the comics community.  This is easily one of the best graphic memoirs I've ever read, and is among the best graphic novels I've read in the last year.

Gia-Bao (GB) Tran's parents fled Saigon with the last of the Americans in the city, making their way to South Carolina, where Tran was born in 1976.  This book begins with his first visit to his family's homeland, a few years ago, after the death of his maternal grandmother.  That trip awakened an interest in his family's history, which is quite complicated.

Tran's paternal grandfather had abandoned his family when Tran's father was quite young, so he could fight the French alongside the Vietminh.  Tran's paternal grandmother ended up marrying a French colonel for a while, and after he left, becomes an imperious figure in the family narrative.  Tran's father marries a French woman, who also later leaves.

The story is told in a kaleidoscopic fashion, moving from one time period to another without immediate rhyme or reason, but slowly, the narrative of three generations gets told.  At times the book was a little confusing, and I found I had to flip back a little to remember who some people were and how they related to each other.  This is largely due to Tran's skill at drawing the different people at different ages, and maintaining family resemblances throughout.

Tran as an American teenager showed no interest in learning about his family's past, and it is the birth of his interest that is one of the more interesting threads in this book.  Many families live in diaspora from a number of different cultural backgrounds, and I think parents and children would be able to recognize something of themselves or their situation in this book.

I have had an avid interest in fiction and comics that deal with the Vietnam War for about twenty years now, but I think this is the first book that tells that tale from the perspective of a mostly apolitical Vietnamese family.  Sure, Tran's grandfather was Vietminh, but after the Americans were run off, even he lost faith in his country.  Tran's maternal uncle was pressed into service with the ARVN, the South Vietnamese army, and the scenes that show him at war also support the theory that many Vietnamese did not want to be involved in the conflict.

This is a highly sensitive and complex piece of cartooning, on a level with Craig Thompson's Habibi, and it truly deserves to get more attention.  I cannot recommend this book enough for anyone who is interested in the Vietnam War, family drama, or really, just amazingly good comics.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Letter 44 #1

Written by Charles Soule
Art by Alberto J. Alburquerque

I think this is one of the most gripping and promising first issues I've read in a very long time.  Charles Soule has been steadily building a name for himself, starting with 27, and then moving to DC where he's doing a bang-up job of writing Swamp Thing, and is also doing one or more of the Green Lantern titles (I don't pay attention).  Letter 44, though, is his most practiced and impressive comic yet.

The book opens in the near future, where a (presumably Democratic) president, the 44th in America's history, is sworn into office after the country spent eight years embroiled in foreign wars and mounting defence spending at the cost of the economy at home.  Before being sworn in, President Blades reads a letter from his predecessor, and learns that everything that has happened was in service of a simple and terrifying fact - NASA has found evidence of alien life in the solar system, a mining facility in an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The former president used his military campaigns as a way to ready his army for the conflict he believes is coming, and to be able to hide the expense of building a space vessel to send nine people to check out what is happening.  Clearly, this is big news, and Blades has to figure out what he should do.

From here, Soule begins to introduce the crew of the Clarke, the vessel which is only now, after three years in space, approaching the alien facility.  There are the usual mix of brave scientists, cynical, sarcastic soldiers, and what have you on the Clarke, and in the short span of this issue, Soule does a great job of introducing them and beginning to develop them.

There is a real sense of urgency and secrecy to this comic, and it feels all the more topical in light of recent events at the NSA.  There are some great elements tossed into the story, like the fact that the woman in charge of the space vessel is pregnant.

Alberto J. Alburquerque is a talented artist, who has a good handle on many of the scenes which are basically composed of talking heads.  I like the way that Guy Major has coloured the book to make the astronauts so pale and sun-deprived.

When I started reading this comic, I couldn't help but compare it to Saucer Country, the recently-departed Vertigo book that also mixed Presidential politics with the threat of alien invasion, but where that series took a more conspiracy-based approach, this one feels like a very intelligent blockbuster.  This comic is only one dollar, and if you can find a copy, I highly suggest you grab it.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Battling Boy

by Paul Pope

There are some cartoonists who release new work so rarely that it is a real cause for celebration when they drop a new book on the world.  Chief among these creators is Paul Pope, whose new graphic novel Battling Boy has been anticipated for years.

I was a little surprised to see the approach that Pope took for this book.  It's been designed to appeal to just about all ages, as Pope gives us a coming-of-age story for a young god who arrives on Earth to fight monsters.

The book opens with the story shown in the Death of Haggard West one-shot a couple of months ago.  The end of that comic, which has West, the science-hero of Arcopolis, die in battle, is interwoven with new material, as we are introduced to the young Boy, who lives in a mystical city kind of like Asgard.  As part of his adolescence, the Boy is sent to Earth to prove himself.  His father is one of the greatest heroes of his people, but he can't help the kid much.

To aid him in his quest, the Boy has been given a collection of special t-shirts which allow him to tap into the abilities of the creatures depicted on them.  This is marketing genius, if this book were to ever be adapted for TV or film.  The kid shows up just as a gigantic monster is wrecking havoc on the Boy's new home, and even though he gets some assistance from his father in putting the creature down, he comes out of the skirmish as a hero.

I love Pope's art, which is always exciting and a little rough, but I also think he's come a long way as a writer.  His Battling Boy is unsure of himself, and a little intimidated by what is expected of him.  Haggard West's daughter is another major character, and she is an interesting study in determination and drive.

My only real complaint about this book is that it doesn't exactly resolve the story, and feels more like the first volume of a series that is going to be incredibly sporadic in coming out.  If this book was delayed for years, I shudder to think of how long it might take to see a new story.  Still, I'll be first in line to buy it, because this was a great read.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Three #1

Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Ryan Kelly

I love a good historical comic, and have long had an interest in the Ancient World, so I was very excited to learn that one of my favourite comics writers, Kieron Gillen, and one of my favourite comics artists, Ryan Kelly, were collaborating on a new series set in Ancient Sparta, some one hundred years after the famous Battle of Thermopylae.

This comic is very much a response to Frank Miller's classic 300 book.  Gillen states as much in the text section of the book, that he was irritated by the way in which Miller removed the slave aspect of Spartan society from his story, and set out to correct the historical record somewhat, and also tell a good story.

Spartan society survived only through the efforts of the Helots, the lower rung of a caste system that viewed them as less than slaves.  When the book opens, a group of young Spartan warriors attack some Helots who are gathering fruit.  Later, we meet a different group, who are having to listen to one particular Helot, from the city, who has put on some airs over his country cousins.

When a group of travelling Spartans insist that this group quarter them for an evening, this City Helot raises their ire by contradicting one man's accounting of the famous Thermopylae encounter.

This is a very interesting comic, with terrific art by Kelly, who has always been a master of human expression.  Gillen doesn't bog the story down with history, and instead provides just the right amount of exposition to make the social arrangements clear.

I'm not sure how long this series is set to run for, but I'm very excited to keep reading it until it ends.  Great stuff.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Sex Criminals #1

Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Chip Zdarsky

If you had the ability to stop time when you orgasm, and after years of not understanding this gift, finally found someone else who could do the same thing, what would you do?  If your answer is rob banks, then Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky's new Image series is probably perfect for you.  Even if that's not how your brain works, this is a comic that is well worth checking out.

Fraction has long established that he is a writer who is not afraid of exploring new ground, but you have to wonder where the idea for this book came from.  The obvious source is Nicholson Baker's strange novel The Fermata, but the protagonist there used his time-stopping powers to masturbate, not the other way around.

Regardless where the notion came from, the writing in this book is excellent.  Fraction spends most of this issue building up Suzie, our narrator.  When she was young, Suzie's father was killed in a workplace massacre, leaving the girl very much alone, as her mother retreated into a bottle.  Suzie explored a very usual adolescent escape, and that is how she learned of her ability.  Fraction follows her through the early teen years, as she figures out how her powers work, and learns that nobody else has the same ability.

The book picks up on Suzie as a young woman, who is obsessively trying to buy up the stock of local library that is being foreclosed upon by a bank.  Surrounding herself with old books, she throws a party to help raise funds to buy more.  It is there that she meets Jon, who she later learns has the same abilities she does.  That's where the bank robbing begins, and where the issue ends.

I really like the way that Fraction is pacing this series (many of his other books are much more frenetic), and think he found the perfect partner in crime in artist Chip Zdarsky.  He has a slightly cartoonish style, but it works very well in the context of this series.  Suzie is shown at different ages, and it's easy to tell how old she is in each scene.  As well, Zdarsky, a local artist, has Suzie living in a house not far from the spot where I pick up my comics every week, which is pretty cool.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Suicide Forest

Written by El Torres
Art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta

I'd enjoyed El Torres and Gabriel Hernandez Walta's earlier horror comic, The Veil, and so thought I'd give this one a try, but was not prepared for the growth in the two gentlemen's storytelling between that project and this one.

The Suicide Forest is set in Tokyo and in Aokigahara Forest, the vast and dark forest near Mount Fuji which is known as a place where people commit suicide.  The story works along two parallel lines for a while, until everything converges in an ending that is disturbing and kind of sweet.  Ryoko is a young woman who works as a forest ranger in Aokigahara, the same job her father had before he disappeared.  She is a deeply spiritual person who adheres to a number of Shinto beliefs that are now considered outdated or mere superstition.  She works in the forest as a way of helping the spirits of the suicides find some peace.

In Tokyo, we meet Alan, an American who has a Japanese girlfriend, Masami, who is more than a little clingy.  Every time he's tried to break up with her, they've ended up back together, but as the book opens, he leaves her for good, and she assaults him before descending into a terrible depression.

After Masami goes to Aokigahara, two of Alan's friends turn up dead.  It's not long before Alan and Ryoko run into each other in the forest, and have to deal with angry spirits and other creepy things.

This book is very well written, with the characters feeling nuanced and complicated.  Gabriel Hernandez Walta's art is dark and suggestive, an interesting cross between mid-career Frank Miller and a toned down Ben Templesmith.  His forest is a foreboding, menacing place.

The Suicide Forest makes me think of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service series of manga, which begins in the same place, but this is a much darker read.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Zero #1

Written by Ales Kot
Art by Michael Walsh

I was disappointed to see that Ales Kot got booted off of DC's Suicide Squad.  His Change mini-series was interesting, if a little hard to follow, but with the Squad, he was showing a new linear-ity to his writing.  On the upside, though, not writing corporate-owned comics gives more time for a book like Zero.

This first issue introduces us to Zero, a soldier who works for 'The Agency', a shadowy organization that we assume is American, but could just as well be British.  Zero has been sent to Israel to retrieve some technology that has been used to augment a Hamas soldier, who is currently in the middle of a pitched battle with one of Israel's own augmented soldiers.  Zero has disguised himself as a tank operator in the IDF, and has to figure out just how he's going to complete his mission without getting discovered.

There is a framing sequence set far into the future (the rest of the book is set a little into the future), where an aged Zero sits at the side of a cliff, with a young boy holding a gun to his head.  The rest of the comic is supposedly the story that he tells the boy, although at this point, much is left to the reader to figure out.

Kot has a good handle on the augmented soldier genre, and sets this up to be a pretty interesting story.  Michael Walsh, who did such a good job on Comeback, reminds me a lot of Paul Azaceta in this issue, and has a good feel for this sort of action.  This is a good new series.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Instructions

by Adam Levin

When reading dense, gigantic novels, I tend to fall into a headspace where finishing them is less a cause of celebration (i.e., "I can finally stop lugging this giant thing around"), as reason to begin mourning the characters and their world after spending so much time with them.  To me, The Instructions, Adam Levin's 1030 page tome, belongs alongside books like Willam T. Vollmann's Fathers and Crows, John Sayles's A Moment in the Sun, Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead, Harry Mulisch's The Discovery of Heaven, and Roberto Bolaño's 2666, as a book that I found completely immersive and consuming.

Unlike those other books, which are all have a sprawl to match their heft, Levin takes just over 1000 pages to detail only four days in the life of his narrator, Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, one of the most unique and believable (while not being plausible) characters I've ever read.

Gurion believes he may be the long-awaited Jewish messiah.  Having been kicked out of a pair of Jewish schools for violence, and being expelled from the Chicago school system for more violence, Gurion has washed up at Aptakisic Junior High School's CAGE program, a lock-down class for troubled students.  He must spend his days sitting in a study carrell, facing forward, and not talking to anyone, at the supposed mercy of Monitor Botha, the hook-handed Australian who runs the program like the petty tyrant he is.

Gurion is an incredibly bright (and verbose) ten-year old, who became revered among students at the Jewish schools for his scholarship and leadership.  While their are few Israelites (never Jews) in the Cage, it's not long before Gurion begins to bring these violent, strange, and just misunderstood kids together under the banner of The Side of Damage.  Before this happens, Gurion falls in love with Eliza June Watermark, and has many long conversations with just about everyone around him.

Levin has crafted a very complex look into a junior high school.  Aptakisic has a number of groups, from the traditional basketball stars, the band kids, and the everykid no-ones, but also has the Main Hall Shovers, a thuggish group that model themselves on British soccer hooligans, but who also are concerned with the design of their uniform neck scarves.  Levin's school has complex rules around detentions and hall passes, and the Cage system is almost medieval in its inability to meet anyone's needs.

This book is full of fascinating characters.  Leaving Gurion aside, his friends and enemies are all complex and fully realized.  His best friend, Benji Nakamook is a brutal thug with a very clear and demanding understanding of loyalty.  Bam Slokum is the god of the school, a position he is both very aware of and beholden to.  Eliyahu of Brooklyn undergoes the biggest transformation in the book; a recently orphaned Orthodox youth with little understanding of other kids, he becomes a powerful leader in his own right under Gurion's tutelage.  There are many other memorable characters in this book - Ronny Desormie, the pervy gym teacher; the Five, a group of young Israelite friends; Leevon, the elective mute; BryGuy Maholtz, the nasally bully; the fascistic Monitor Botha; Call-Me-Sandy, the psychology student with a crush on her professor; Boystar, the child popstar who attends the school; and Main Man Mookus, a Cage student who has Williams Cocktail Party Syndrome, a form of retardation that causes him to speak in great long, complex sentences, the meaning of which he doesn't understand.

And then there are Gurion's parents.  His mother is an Ethiopian-Israelite psychologist who was in the special forces in Israel.  His father is a civil rights lawyer who has taken on a venomous Neo-Nazi as a client.  Their scenes in the book were the only ones that felt a little too long, but their support for and strange parenting of Gurion make the story possible.

Gurion himself is a rare character in literature.  He analyzes everything he does, but often finds that the best response to a situation is violent action.  He comes across as very loveable, but also vicious and dangerous.  He has armed his followers with pennyguns (devices made of pop bottles and balloons that can fire coins with great accuracy) and his own dogma, called Ulpan (or, in English, The Instructions).

The text of this book is meant to be Gurion's own scripture, as he himself wrote it.  To that end, Gurion (or really, Levin) often chooses words that are more 'scriptural' in nature.  When loading up on ammunition before launching the attack on the gym that sets off The Gurionic War, The Side of Damage choose to forsake the dimes, not pass them over.  It is these little touches that make this book so successful.

It's been a long time since I've read a book that has affected me the way The Instructions has.  Levin's consistency of vision, ear for dialogue, constructions of logic and scholarship, and most of all, wicked sense of humour (because this book is funny - I don't think I've conveyed that yet) make this a book I am dying to share with others.  This is an absolute gem, and one of my favourite books of all time.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Couple of Winos

Written by Charles Bukowski
Adapted by Matthias Schultheiss

I came across this single issue from 1991 recently, having never been aware of the fact that German cartoonist Matthias Schultheiss had adapted some stories by Charles Bukowski.  I snatched this up right away, not sure of what to expect from it.

The story is set in the California desert, perhaps in the forties.  The narrator is a wandering alcoholic who is picked up one day to work a manual labour job in the middle of nowhere alongside an older wino.  The two men struggle through their job before moving on in life.  That's about all there is, plot-wise.

Schultheiss's sparse style fits with Bukowski's bleak prose.  We don't learn much about the narrator - and we only know a little more about his companion.  The landscape is as barren as the art, and the protagonists' hopes for their futures.

There are a few odd things about this book.  To begin with, Schultheiss portrays the vehicles as having right-hand drive, which threw me out of the story.  I also don't understand what the cover, which is a little more explicit than one would normally expect on a comics shelf, has to do with the story.  Still, I'm now on the hunt for any other Bukowski adaptations like this, and would gladly pick up a collection of them.  This was a good find.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Autobiographical Conversations

by Ryan Claytor with Dr. Harry Polkinhorn

A few years ago, Ryan Claytor had an appearance at the comic store I shop at, as he was travelling around supporting his self-published series And Then One Day.  That series is an autobiographical one, and creating it led to his pondering the nature of autobiography.

This book depicts, in comic book form, Claytor's conversation with Dr. Harry Polkinhorn,  a professor at San Diego State University, who teaches classes on the personal essay.  At the time the two men met, Claytor was doing graduate work on comics, and they had a long and kind of rambling discussion on autobiography, the concept of objective versus emotional truth, and the proper way to convey personal experiences in a comic format.

Of course, the conversation is shown as a comic, and the two men move from Polkinhorn's office to a lunch spot, and then walk around the campus while they chat.  The conversation is pretty academic, but is rendered in an easily understood format, and is quite interesting.  They do discuss other cartoonists, such as Craig Thompson and David Chelsea, but most of the conversation is given over to Claytor's own approach to his work.

What has me most curious after reading this is seeing how the concepts touched on in this conversation shape Claytor's future work.  He thinks about things at a level that few cartoonists do, and so I'm interested in seeing how these notions get applied.

This is an interesting little book, which can be grabbed at Claytor's website, if it sounds like it might be your thing.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove

Written by Ahmir 'Questlove' Thompson and Ben Greenman

I'm not sure I can adequately express the depth of my respect for Questlove and The Roots.  I've been following their music for over fifteen years, and have almost always been impressed with each new album or concert.  More than that, though, Questlove has, through his writing on Okayplayer and other media outlets, been a teacher and guide through music, race, and just about any other topic he decides to talk about.  I remember his eulogy for J. Dilla moving me to tears.

Anyway, although I never read celebrity memoirs, I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove.  Quest does a great job, in many ways, of situating himself and The Roots in the various historical eras of hip-hop, showing how the band grew from the music that he and Tariq 'Black Thought' Trotter were listening to in high school, and how industry forces and trends, and their own inter-group dynamics, have shaped them over time.  He also explains the rise and fall of neo-soul, and a number of other things that I hadn't always put together as being related.

What he doesn't do, for which I'm thankful, is 'tell all'.  He never once names the girls he's dated, or shares salacious information about others.  When he does talk about other famous people, it is usually self-deprecating, like telling about the time he first met his idol, Prince, or the story of being at Lyricist Lounge when Mos Def dissed Puff Daddy on stage, only to later find him in the audience.

Quest comes across as a little awkward, and not always aware of how his actions are going to play out, which is a very honest and risky level of truth for a book like this.  I'd always admired the man, but having read this book, I now really like him.

There are a few things missing from this book that surprised me.  At its heyday, the Okayplayer website was a huge force in hip-hop, and served as my introduction to a lot of great music.  While the site is mentioned here or there, Quest never gets into a lot of detail about his role in forming that site, which is something I'd expected to learn a little more about.

I did come away from this book with an even greater understanding of music.  I found myself constantly cueing up videos on Youtube while reading this book, listening for the drums Quest talks about, or just satisfying my curiosity.  I didn't grow up surrounded with music the way he did, and so feel like I have to play catch-up in some key areas.

It's impossible to discuss this book without talking about the 'meta' material in it.  Really, this book is written by three people: Questlove, Dan Greenman, his co-writer, and Richard Nichols, the band's co-manager.  Some chapters are structured as a conversation between Quest and Rich, and they are pretty entertaining.  As the book progresses, Rich moves into the footnotes, sometimes adding more detail to a story Questlove is telling, and at other times flat out contradicting it.  His contribution to the book is great.

Ben Greenman, I'm not so sure of.  From time to time, he includes an e-mail to his editor, Ben Greenberg, about the direction the book is taking, or about some aspect of his job in the book.  None of these (short of the first one explaining that Rich is the bold text), add anything to the book, except for making it obvious that there is a co-writer involved in the process, who we know nothing else about.  I found myself reading into his presence (is it ego?), and later, that made me very conscious of the fact that despite the text being in first person, I never really knew whose words I was reading.

Regardless, this book is a solid document of a band that has had an important place in my life, and the world they've lived in.  I'm sure it could have been a lot longer and more detailed (the last two albums barely get a page each), but as it stands, it was always entertaining, and very educational.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

American Vampire Anthology #1

Written by Scott Snyder, Jason Aaron, Rafael Albuquerque, Jeff Lemire, Becky Cloonan, Francesco Francavilla, Gail Simone, Gabriel Bá, Fábio Moon, and Greg Rucka
Art by Rafael Albuquerque, Declan Shalvey, Ivo Milazzo, Ray Fawkes, Becky Cloonan, Francesco Francavilla, Tula Lotay, Gabriel Bá, Fábio Moon, and John Paul Leon

When American Vampire first started a few years ago, despite its coming out in the middle of the vampire-related glut of the post-Twilight world, it really stood out as a well-considered, and excellently-executed new approach to the genre.  I liked how Scott Snyder (and early collaborator, Stephen King) grounded the vampire, and other mythological creatures, in biology and history.  There was a strong emphasis on character, and under Rafael Albuquerque's pencil, the book looked terrific.

As the series continued, as new characters were added to the mix, and as spin-off mini-series became more exciting than the main title, I felt that things needed a bit of a shakeup to keep my interests.  I wasn't all that upset when I learned that the series was going on hiatus for a while, as I was considering dropping it.

Now, though Snyder and Albuquerque have headlined this anthology, which has gotten me excited about the property again.  First off, just look at the talent involved in this book, with names like Cloonan, Bá, Moon, Lemire, Francavilla, Rucka and Leon showing up on the cover.  In their numerous short stories, many of which were too short, they explored other aspects of this world, and I loved it.

Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes took us up to James Bay to see what the Canadian Vampire would look like, while Jason Aaron and Declan Shalvey revisited the early colonial days of the United States in a similar tale.  Regular series artist Albuquerque writes a story about a small town in Kansas, which is painted by the very interesting Ivo Milazzo.

Some of the stories feature characters we've met before, as in Gail Simone and Tula Lotay's 'Hattie' tale, and in Becky Cloonan's exploration of why Skinner Sweet came to Hollywood.  Skinner shows up in Greg Rucka and John Paul Leon's story too, which explains what happened to him after Las Vegas, back in the second or third arc of the series.

Francesco Francavilla looks at the vampires' influence in Hollywood, while Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon take us into a seedy nightclub.

This is a very nice looking book, which has managed to whet my appetite some for the return of the series, which is what it's supposed to do I guess.

Fishtown

by Kevin Colden

In Fishtown, Kevin Colden gives us a chilling and believable portrait of bored, remorseless teenagers who have been involved in the murder of one of their peers.

The kids, a trio of drug-addled boys and a manipulative girl, have pretty lost little lives.  They argue with their parents or adoptive uncles, and take whatever substances they can find.  When the girl comes up with the idea of robbing a high school dropout their age, everyone happily goes along with the plan, even when the suggestion is made that they kill the guy to escape being identified.

Colden tells the story from the perspective of the kids after they have been caught and incarcerated.  It's not always clear if they are speaking to a cop, a lawyer, or a therapist, and it doesn't really matter, as they seem more than happy to explain what happened.

Stories like this are sadly not uncommon - it wasn't that long ago that we heard of a couple of kids who killed a tourist for something to do, and Colden's portrayal of the kids feels very real.  The girl argues with her mother, and flies into a rage that she doesn't believe her, despite the fact that she's lying.  They seem to believe that a score of $500, split four ways, is all they'll need to lead themselves to a better life.

Colden's monochromatic pencils do a terrific job of capturing the slow decay of the parts of Philadelphia that have passed their prime, although he could be drawing any mid-sized American city.  The bleakness of this book lingers and sticks with you.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Absolution

Written by Christos Gage
Art by Roberto Viacava

Christos Gage has made a name for himself as a superhero writer who can navigate difficult continuity terrain, and is often used to help iron out difficult consequences of poorly thought-out event books at the big two (think of his Spider-Man tie-in to Age of Ultron).  I was curious to see what his work is like when he can develop his own world to play with, unconstrained by corporate policy and the weight of years of stories.

Absolution is set in a world where superheroes are embraced by law enforcement, and work within the police or government agencies.  John Dusk is one of the most respected 'enhanced' police officers; he can project a blue 'aura' around his body, giving him abilities somewhere between a telekinetic's and a Green Lantern's.  Dusk has always had a strong sense of justice, but lately he's decided that he needs to take matters into his own hands, when he finds that too many of the world's most reprehensible individuals are given too many opportunities to reoffend.  Using his powers creatively, he starts executing some pretty awful folk.  And, this being an Avatar book, some of their crimes do get pretty disturbing.

Of course, this kind of thing can't last forever, and Gage does a good job of examining Dusk's responses to his own actions, as well as the reactions of the people he's close to.  The comic is a very good read, moving into some territory that superhero comics don't often explore.  The art, which adhere's to the standard Avatar look, is a little weak.

This book works well as a trade, and I will probably wait to pick up the current follow-up mini-series in the same format.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Grendel: War Child

Written by Matt Wagner
Art by Patrick McEown and Monty Sheldon

War Child was most likely the first Grendel story I'd ever read.  There's a good chance that I'd picked up an issue or two of the old Comico series - perhaps around the Christine Spar era - but this was the first time that I bought a Grendel series each month as it came onto the stands.  It is also this series that got me to start digging up some of the older issues, as well as launching me into the Grendel Tales mini-series that followed, some of which were brilliant.

War Child is a very good comic.  In it, Matt Wagner returned to the world he (and Grendel) had created.  A few years after the death of Orion Assante, the Grendel-Khan and ruler of most of the world, things aren't looking so good.  His wife is pursuing her own desires, and using the power she holds over Jupiter Assante, the young heir to the throne, for her own ends.

Then, Jupiter is abducted by a single warrior dressed all in black, the Grendel-Prime.  Eventually, we learn that this warrior is doing Orion's bidding, as he takes Jupiter on a trip across the world, trying to keep him safe.  Wagner went with a wild action approach for this series, which involves mutants, vampires, killer robots, and any number of other tropes to ratchet up the excitement.  He also does a wonderful job building these characters, including Jupiter's stepsister and her guard.  Eventually, the grown Jupiter wishes to retake his rightful position, but that is not a simple proposition.

I love Patrick McEown's art in this series.  His work looks similar to Matt Wagner's, but there is a looseness about it that helps make the action scenes even more dynamic.  I think it's a shame that Wagner hasn't returned to this era of his Grendel story (I'm sick of seeing Hunter Rose), as it's a pretty interesting place.

I really enjoyed revisiting this series and these characters.

Life as a Terrorist

by William T. Vollmann

It's been a long time since I've heard anything from William T. Vollmann, an author I've been following since I was eighteen.  For a while there, he was publishing books almost as quickly as I could read them, but he's published nothing since his Imperial.  This article is his first in Harper's in over two years, so it made me very happy to see his name on the cover (alongside Nicholson Baker's - it's like this issue was written just for me).

In this article, Vollmann recounts the experience of acquiring, and reading, his FBI file.  Well, 294 out of at least 785 pages of his file, much of it padded with duplicated papers (although not consistently redacted ones).  When I saw what the article was going to be about, I wasn't all that surprised that Vollmann would have an FBI file.  After all, as a young man, he travelled with the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and has reported in his own unique style from a number of the world's more anti-American regions.  He also once resuced a young girl out of prostitution in Thailand.  To my mind, these are some of the things that can lead to problems with a spy agency.

What I didn't expect to learn was that Vollmann was once considered as a suspect in the Unabomber case.  Sure, over a thousand people were considered, but the FBI went so far as to put his home under surveillance at one point.  That's the kind of thing that rattles you, when you learn it about yourself, I'm sure.

Vollmann's writing is as clear as ever.  He develops compassion for the agents who wrote about him, even imagining that one of them may have fallen in love with him (a very common occurrence in his writing).  It also helps explain his difficulties in crossing the border back from Mexico, which he talks about in Imperial.  His story has some pretty clear connections to much of what is happening in America in the area of government surveillance, and is very relevant, and alarming.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Gone to Amerikay

Written by Derek McCulloch
Art by Colleen Doran

I knew going in that I'd be impressed with this book.  Gone to Amerikay is drawn by the gifted artist Colleen Doran, is a historical tale, and the type of graphic novel that Vertigo just doesn't seem to publish anymore (despite the fact that this book is only a year old, it feels like it's from an earlier era of risk-taking and quality work at the DC imprint, one that has been traded in for returns to the well, and Fables side-projects).

The book is set in New York, showing three different eras.  In 1870, Ciara O'Dwyer arrives in the city with her young daughter, coming ahead of her husband who never actually arrives.  Ciara has to learn to make ends meet on her own, although she is soon helped by a mysterious young man she knew in the old country.

In 1960, the newly arrived Johnny McCormack can't wait to make his mark in the music or theatre world.  His close friend (who becomes very close) helps him out in this regard, but their partnership leads Johnny towards some personal problems.

In 2010, Lewis Healy, a very rich Irish businessman, and his wife Sophie, arrive in New York for a trip that Sophie has arranged.  She wants to take her husband around to various parts in the city where McCormack and O'Dwyer lived and worked, seeing as the strange connection between these two is what inspired Healy in life.

Derek McCulloch has put together a very interesting look at the immigrant experience and the history of New York.  The book is meticulously researched and each era is shown with a sense of authenticity.  Doran excels at this type of work - her characters are always very believable, and she has real skill at showing the different time periods.  I especially liked the way that parallels were found between the different stories, with the art often bleeding from one time to the next with a similarly parallel structure.

I wish there were more historical graphic novels of this level of quality being produced.  A truly excellent read.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Milkman Murders

Written by Joe Casey
Art by Steve Parkhouse

When opening up a comic by Joe Casey, the informed reader expects a certain amount of excess - usually some ultraviolence in the vein of a Tarantino movie, or some satire of the comics industry.  I wasn't really prepared for the degree to which The Milkman Murders disturbed me.

Casey has set his story in a nameless American suburb, where Barbara Vale lives with her husband and two teenage children.  Her husband is abusive and takes drugs with his friends.  Her daughter is sleeping with her gym teacher, and has quite a history with this sort of thing.  Her son likes to shoot neighbourhood animals and skin them in the cellar.  None of these people show her any kindness, and so she retreats into watching "Leave it to Mother", a TV show based on Leave it to Beaver.

One day, rather randomly, a slob driving a milk truck shows up at the door and rapes Barbara viciously.  After this terrifying event, she decides she has to take matters into her own hands to fix her family.  And that's where things get really violent and disturbing.

I've followed Steve Parkhouse's North American comics for years, most recently in the excellent Resident Alien, but I've never seen his work so loose.  His characters are caricatures of typical Americans, although that makes this book look less American than almost anything else on the stands.

Casey and Parkhouse's comments on American society are just left on the surface for us to see, and there is no hidden depth to this book, but so far as straight-up horror comics go, this is one of the creepiest ones I've ever read.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt

by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco

It shouldn't come as news to anyone that America is in trouble these days, but I've read few explanations of just how varied and deep the trouble lies than Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco's book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.  The two men, one a print journalist and the other a comics journalist, traveled the country and found four regions where inequality is having a devastating affect on locals.

The book begins in Pine Ridge South Dakota, a reservation with almost complete unemployment.  By beginning the book here, the authors are reminding us that disenfranchisement, disregard for human rights, and blind obedience to capitalism are some of the central tenets of the American experience, and they always have been.  And the consequences of that are clear to any who would care to look.

From there, Hedges and Sacco take us to Camden New Jersey, a post-urban wasteland drowning in drugs and poverty, to Welch West Virginia, where the environment is being destroyed in the quest for coal, and to Immokalee Florida, where people, mostly migrants from Mexico and places to the south, are being exploited in the interest of keeping the price of growing food low (even as financial speculators keep the cost of buying food in markets unnecessarily high).  Over and over again, Hedges and Sacco show us examples of devastation and disregard.

The thing is, they also show us dignity and hope.  Again and again we meet people who have stood up to big business, local and state government, and sometimes their neighbours, in often vain attempts to protect their homes, their environment, and their way of life.

The final chapter of the book didn't sit as well with me as did the rest of the book.  In it, Hedges writes about the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, and in it, he saw the beginning of the end of Western Capitalism.  It seems to me that his hopes for this movement were unrealistic, and with the book having been out more than a year, events seem to have not supported his viewpoint.

Ignoring that last chapter, this book is an excellent portrait of a country that is entering its decline at the hands of the elite few.  Joe Sacco's portraits and illustrations add weight and veracity to the text, and his comics, which usually take the form of biography, are fantastic.  Both Hedges and Sacco incorporate oral history into their writing, letting the people in these little-known and much-ignored places speak for themselves, giving their stories greater weight.

I enjoyed this book, and would love to share in Hedge's optimism that the solution to many of these problems lie in the collective voices of regular citizens.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Before Watchmen: Minutemen

by Darwyn Cooke

When the Before Watchmen books were first announced, despite my general opposition to the project, I was most interested in the idea of Darwyn Cooke writing and drawing the Minutemen series.  I have always loved Golden Age characters, even ones that didn't actually exist in that time period.  I figured that Cooke was the perfect person to look at the original team, given the success he had with The New Frontier, his love letter to the Silver Age, and the superior sense of design he brings to his Parker adaptations.

Really, this miniseries disappointed me.  It feels like Cooke was being told what to do with the book, and it takes about three issues before any sense of story arc kicks in.  The book is narrated by Hollis Mason, the Nite Owl.  It's framed in the early 1960s, after Mason has written his tell-all biography, and is getting some serious push back from his surviving friends from their period of dressing up to fight crimes.

Mason flashes back through his entire career, showing us the high and low points as he goes.  A number of the main events are explained in Watchmen, and these points are glossed over here, although we do see how they affect Mason and his friends.  This makes reading this book as a prequel before someone reads Watchmen (there are a few people left who haven't read it yet, mostly children I assume), as the narrative stays jerky and lacking in enough exposition in places.

Cooke's art is always great, but aside from the visual trick he pulls on most of the first pages, which have repeated design elements, much of this book looks rushed.  In the final analysis, Cooke doesn't make me care about any of these characters any more than Alan Moore did, and this series adds little to nothing to the 'mythos'.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Fallen Words

by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Compared to the rather dark and brutal stories of Tatsumi's Abandon the Old in Tokyo, which I read recently, Fallen Words is an absolute delight.  Tatsumi, the father of gekiga manga, a sub-genre analogous to alternative comics in North America, experimented with this book.  Each story told here comes from the Japanese storytelling tradition of rakugo, which features moral fables that end with a punchline or joke.  Tatsumi decided to fashion these classic stories in the gekiga style, and see where it took him.

These are old stories from mostly the Edo period, and as such are all set during that time.  They play with themes of marital deception, and many of them involve prostitutes or the lengths people will go to to escape poverty.

The lightness of the stories is carried over into Tatsumi's storytelling and art, which feels a little looser than his earlier work.  I didn't find it difficult at all to relate to these characters, despite their being from a distant time and culture, and that is a credit to the ease with which Tatsumi weaves his tales.  Now, not being familiar with rakugo at all, I can't really assess how closely he stays to the source material, but that doesn't really matter.  What does matter is that this is a fun read.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Trillium #1

by Jeff Lemire

I've missed reading stuff by Jeff Lemire since Sweet Tooth ended.  Sure, he's writing a number of books at DC, but he's not drawing any of them, and they don't really feel like a Jeff Lemire comic.  Trillium does.

This new mini-series is designed as a flipbook that tells two different, connected stories.  Nika is a scientist on a remote planet where the last of the human race, some four thousand people, are rushing to find a cure to a sentient disease that has been targeting the species across the galaxy.  Growing on this planet is a flower, a trillium, that has a property that can combat the disease, but the flower grows in a compound inhabited by the Atabithi, the indigenous people of the planet.  The disease is spreading quicker than expected, and so Nika is driven to extreme measures to try to secure the use of the flower.

On the flipside of the book, we meet William, a veteran of the First World War, who has an interest in the Amazon.  He signs on to an expedition looking for a 'lost temple' of the Incas, which is believed to contain the secret to eternal youth.  William pushes the rest of his expedition to take unnecessary risks, and they soon draw the ire of the locals.

I love Lemire's unconventional artwork, especially when he's being coloured by José Villarrubia.  I especially enjoy the moments in this book, like the last page of each story, that echo each other visually.   I love when books depict the Great War, even if it is just in flashback, and am intrigued in this particular vision of the future (which reminded me a little of David Hine and Doug Braithwaite's excellent series Storm Dogs).  I would be happier were Lemire working on a new on-going series, but I am very pleased with this mini-series.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Bunker #1

Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov
Art by Joe Infurnari

My strong dislike of webcomics developed an exception when I learned that Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin were publishing their wonderful Private Eye on-line only, and now this week, Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari were also able to convince me to purchase a digital file with the first chapter of their new series The Bunker.

I've been a fan of Fialkov's since I read the wonderful Tumor (which was also originally published as a webcomic), a became more fervent in my admiration of him after I read his brilliant Echoes and the very good Elk's Run.  His DC and Marvel stuff have not impressed me to the same degree, but I suppose that's to be expected.  With The Bunker, he feels like he's back at his fighting weight.

This book opens with a group of young people deciding to plant a time capsule as a way of celebrating their friendship and the fact that life is taking them in different directions.  Not all of them are into it though, and it becomes clear that while these are close friends, they are not above taking the piss out of one another.

While digging, they uncover a strange underground bunker with all of their names printed on the outside but for one.  Luckily, one of the characters makes the obvious reference to Lost herself, so the reader doesn't have to keep thinking it (that show has forever monopolized the old trope of finding a buried bunker in the middle of nowhere it seems - especially if it has a submarine-style hatch).  Inside the bunker are notes from their future selves, which depict a very bleak vision of where the world is headed, and explaining that most of the group are responsible for it.  One person doesn't have his name anywhere, nor does he get a note, but the reason why is pivotal to the issue.

Fialkov is setting up a pretty interesting story, with the suggestion that as bad as things get in the future, if the friends don't go about creating the things that got it that way, it's only going to get worse.  After reading these thirty-odd pages, it's hard to predict where this book is going to go.

Inurnari's art is suited to Fialkov's writing, just as his usual independent collaborator Noel Tuazon's is.  Both artists are a little scratchy and loose, and Infurnari does a great job of suggesting what the different friend's personalities are like just based on their appearance and facial expressions.

At just $2 a download, I highly recommend heading over to the Bunker website and getting this for yourself.  It's pretty good stuff.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Optic Nerve #13

by Adrian Tomine

It's always cause to celebrate when a creator like Adrian Tomine comes out with a new book, and even more so when he continues to release his material in the single-issue format.

This issue of Optic Nerve contains two short stories inside of it, and another short strip of Tomine being an artistic Luddite making up the cover (no wasted space here).

The first story, 'Go Owls' is a wonderful study of an abusive relationship.  A man meets a woman at a twelve step program, and the two of them hook up.  At first, the guy is loving and supportive, but over time, Tomine's portrayal of him changes to show that he's really a bit of a creep.  This guy is demanding and belittling, and also pretty weird in his pursuit of 'his sexy stuff', but the woman has nowhere to go, and so she stays with him.  It's not as bleak as it sounds though - there are some genuinely funny moments, and the ending is downright awesome.

The second story, 'Translated, from the Japanese' is beautiful.  It's narrated by a young mother who is returning to America with her daughter after a sojourn in Japan.  Each panel is either architectural in subject, or an extreme closeup of the things around the narrator.  None of the main characters are actually shown.  Most of the story takes place on the flight to California, where a Japanese professor befriends and entertains the young girl.  A flight attendant mistakes the trio for a family.  Upon landing, it becomes clear that the woman's nuclear family is going through a bit of a crisis.

These stories show Tomine at his best.  His pieces are literary and original, and show insight into the human condition.  His art is top notch, and the only thing I have to complain about this book is that it's probably going to be another year before we see any new work from him.  I cannot recommend this book enough.

Abandon the Old in Tokyo

by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

I'm not sure I was prepared for the utter bleakness of the stories collected in Abandon the Old in Tokyo.  I've read a few of Tatsumi's books now, most notably A Drifting Life, but I still didn't expect that his work would be quite this dark.

Tatsumi uses these stories, which originally saw publication in the 1970s, to explore the growing sense of isolation in Tokyo's cities, and the pressures placed on young men to be successful and happy.  His protagonists usually look the same in each story, giving the impression that we are seeing the same poor sap again and again.  His protagonists are also often silent or men of very few words; they allow others to shape their existences, be they demanding fiancés, infirm parents, creditors, or unfriendly editors.  Again and again we see these poor guys get beaten down, until they make some questionable life choices.

The most disturbing story in this book is 'The Hole', in which our protagonist is tricked into falling into a hole on a mountain, where a woman with a burned face and chest holds him captive for reasons that are never made clear.  Things get really twisted when the man's wife shows up, but insists she will only help him if he gives up his plans to divorce her.

Often when reading manga, I feel a cultural disconnect with the characters.  That's not the case here, as Tatsumi focuses on the problems of the modern condition; in many ways, this work is as relevant in post-recession North America as it was in post-war Japan.  This is a disturbing book, but it has been made by a master of the art form, and for that reason, it is a worthy read.