Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Judas Coin

by Walter Simonson

If asked to list my favourite comics creators from my pre-teen and teen years, Walter Simonson would definitely hold a place of prominence on that list.  His work on Thor was revolutionary, and I remember his run on Fantastic Four with fondness.  His X-Factor was visually stunning, and his Manhunter a classic of the superhero genre.

He hasn't been producing much in the last years, aside from a recent resurgence of variant covers and short art appearances on Indestructible Hulk and Legion of Super-Heroes.

He did release The Judas Coin in 2012, although I've only just now gotten around to reading it.  This is a very cool graphic novel, which begins with the crucifixion of Christ, and continues into a very futuristic 2087.  Each short story in this book is linked by the presence of a single coin, lost by Judas when he tried to return his thirty pieces of silver at the dawn of the Christian era.

Jumping through the various eras, this book also serves as a survey of some of the different, storied parts of the DC Universe's past.  Little-seen characters such as the Golden Gladiator, the Viking Prince, and Captain Fear star in the first chapters, while Bat Lash is given the 19th Century slot, and Batman and Two-Face represent the present day.  Simonson creates a new, 2070 version of Manhunter (unless this is just a really obscure DC character I never knew about) to finish up the novel.

Each of these stories involve some sort of misfortune that befalls the person holding on to Judas's coin.  It's a very effective framing device, that allows Simonson to tell a number of different stories that match the genre of each era.  Of course, the Viking Prince story involves large monsters like those Simonson drew in his Thor days, while the Bat Lash story takes place after a particularly heated game of cards.

I love Simonson's art, and the way in which he adapted things for each new chapter.  The Bat Lash chapter has a slight sepia-tone to it, and in the Manhunter 2070 story, the female adversaries look like they could have stepped out of an anime series.  The decision to construct the Batman story around the landscaped shape of a newspaper strip was an odd one, and while it looked nice, I hate having to read comics sideways, especially in hardcover.

It would have been nice to see some of the other eras of DC history or future represented here.  I would have loved a Justice Society of America chapter set in the WWII era, and for the book to have ended with the Legion of Super-Heroes, but I can see how the powers that be didn't want the book to be too visibly pre-New 52.  Still, this is a solid read, and worth checking out.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

by David Mitchell

It was through reading reviews of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel when it was first released in hardcover that I learned of David Mitchell and his work, which lead to my reading two of his other books (Black Swan Green and the brilliant Cloud Atlas) before tackling this rich and impressive novel.

Jacob De Zoet is a young Dutch man, working for the Dutch East India Company at the turn of the 19th century.  He has been sent to Dejima, the small island trading factory in Nagasaki Bay, at a time when Japan was kept strictly off-limits to foreigners.  The Dutchmen of the Company, with their various slaves and servants from other parts of the world, are practically kept prisoner, but are also the source of much lucrative trade, and the power that comes with it, and so are accorded a level of respect and deference.

De Zoet has arrived on Dejima with a new manager, the previous one having been revealed as a thief and scoundrel.  De Zoet's job is to perform some forensic accounting on the Company's books, and to determine how bad the damage is.  His goal is to raise enough money for himself through his honest work that he can return to Denmark and be with the girl he wants to marry.  Of course, it's not long before he meets the mysterious Orito Aibagawa, and he falls for her.

To all intents and purposes, the first third of this book gives the impression that the whole novel is a historical romance of manners and status, kind of like a historical multicultural Remains of the Day, but anyone who has read Cloud Atlas should know better than to expect that kind of adherence to conventions from a writer like Mitchell.

Soon enough, the book becomes more concerned with the goings on at a mountaintop shrine owned by a powerful Lord.  At this place, women are systematically 'engifted' with the seed of the monks at the shrine, although the purpose of this ritualized rape is unknown to just about everyone.  At this point, the book becomes a little more adventurous in nature, reminding me of a Kurosawa samurai movie.

Later still, a British frigate appears in the harbour, looking to take over Dejima and the trade that takes place there, and the novel tacks in yet another direction.

What makes all of this work is the steady hand of Mitchell's writing, and his strong sense of character.  As the story progresses, the characters, especially De Zoet, and his favourite Japanese interpreter, undergo a number of changes, and hold the reader's attention.

Mitchell does an excellent job of breathing life into such a foreign and distant point in History.  His description in the book is phenomenal, often using short declarative, almost haiku-like sentences to paint the scene for each new chapter or setting.

I really enjoyed this novel.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

I'm pretty sure that, with Good-Bye, I've now read all of Drawn & Quarterly's collections of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's manga that have been published so far.  Tatsumi really is a marvel, and I consider myself lucky to have been able to have read so much of his work.

Lucky, and kind of depressed, as his stories are all about people who have been brutally isolated by modern, post-war Japanese society.  In one story, a man mourning his upcoming retirement decides to spend all of his money so that his cold and controlling wife doesn't get any of it, and even manages to end up in bed with the girl he's had a crush on, only to find the entire thing so incredibly sad and empty.

Another story has a young man become the only resident of his apartment building, after a corpse is discovered in the adjoining apartment.  In another tale, a young woman decides to prostitute herself out to American soldiers stationed nearby, mostly because she doesn't know what else to do with herself.

This is a very bleak book, and with its frank and sometimes explicit approach to sexuality, not at all what I would have expected to have been published in Japan in the 70s.  These are very literary and mature stories, and reading them in quick succession is a little numbing, but ultimately in a good way.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Journal of the Main Street Secret Lodge

by Steven Gilbert

I'm always on the lookout for interesting historical comics and graphic novels, and when I saw this show up at the store where I shop, I was intrigued.  The book, by Steven Gilbert, who apparently built a bit of a name for himself in the Canadian independent comics scene in the 90s, is set in the town of Newmarket (now basically just a suburb of Toronto) at the end of the 19th century.

The title is a little bit misleading, as there is no Main Street Secret Lodge in evidence, but we are given an interesting look into a place at a time where society was going through rapid change.  At the centre of this book is a story called 'Cold Cold Ground', which follows a pair of bank robbers, a man and a woman, who have come up from the States.  They attack a Northern Outpost, drawing away Captain Gilbert (presumably an ancestor of the author), so that they can rob a bank on Main Street.  That robbery doesn't go well, and there is a fair amount of bloodshed.  As the robbers flee, things get even worse for a small family we are introduced to earlier.

This story is bookended by some random information on crime in that time (there is a lengthy essay on how people used to rob hotels), and portraits of 'billiards' girls in the nude.  In the middle of the story are a couple of pages about the growth of the railroad, and throughout the book are large pictures of scenery and establishing shots.

Gilbert is a strong cartoonist with a deep love of cross-hatching, and the place he is portraying.  His publisher, from what I can tell, is a comics store in Newmarket, and it's clear that this unconventional book is a passion project.  I enjoyed it, and would gladly return to the journals of the Main Street Secret Lodge, if given another opportunity.