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.


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


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.